By Ed Pond
So Article 50 was at last activated last Wednesday. It's a welcome waypoint in the process of leaving, but now the real hard slog starts. Expect months of hour-by-hour speculation, leaks, briefings against briefings, obfuscation, point-scoring, naff news graphics and all the rest. While scrutiny is healthy and can be constructive, we must not forget what some arch-remainers are trying to achieve from such 'House of Cards' tactics.
We should be resilient and not above clever strategies of our own to withstand this. The media will stir up the pot, not necessarily because of an agenda, but for sensationalism: they love a good bust-up, and this is the political hoo-hah that just keeps giving. Ultimately, though, this is not entertainment - it is the future of our nation at stake. It does not help anybody to scupper the negotiations out of self interest or a dramatic aesthetic. We have voted and now have to make leaving work. The many former remainers who accept this set a good example, and should have our respect.
The EU's response came hours after May's famous letter (which showed us that her fountain pen skills need some work). The letter sent was actually quite reasonable in tone. However, the paper presented to the European Parliament was a bit more blunt. Two elements of it in particular were seized upon by commentators. The first was the much discussed leaving fee, what the paper calls "a single financial settlement" for "obligations undertaken before the date of withdrawal". The phantom figure of £50 billion was not mentioned, but it is sure to continue being quoted at every opportunity by naysayers. We will likely have to pay something, and we've made certain commitments to projects (projects which will benefit us until we leave); but £50 billion is a ridiculous overstatement designed to scare us. Considering the UK was the second biggest net contributor to the EU, it is even more absurd. We must, and will, get an itemised bill to work out the true figure - then bargain it down.
The second part of the paper to hit the headlines was an issue with Gibraltar. It states that no new agreement between the EU and the UK may apply to the protectorate "without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom". It seems strange this was included. What difference should it make to Gibraltar's British status whether it is in the EU or not? Is this simply about Spain not wanting to pay tariffs to Gibraltar-bound exports or something more sinister? Stranger yet was the announcement by the new Spanish foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, that Spain would not veto an 'independent' Scotland applying for EU membership. It was widely thought they would do this because it would set a precedent for Catalonia, which has its eye on breaking away from its Castilian rulers through a referendum. Was this a price agreed by Spain in backroom discussions with the EU? Get a say over Gibraltar in exchange for a risky promise on the hypothetical Scotland situation? Both things of course will benefit the EU in the negotiations (in its eyes), by increasing British uncertainty and leaving open possible loopholes to prevent us leaving. Spain could of course agree with the deal anyway, and then this awkward little clause would be a moot point.
It would probably be for the best. Spain have already found that, overwhelming remain vote in the referendum or not, Gibraltar is loyal to the UK and the UK is loyal to Gibraltar. Michael Howard provided some rather unwise input by bringing up the memory of the Falklands War. Contrary to what excitable commentators said, probably without even watching the interview, he didn't advocate war - merely commitment and resolve, which the PM has made clear she has. Still, it was perhaps not very helpful, if only because Tim Farron types would be all over it like seagulls following an over-quota British fishing boat dumping catches.
A 17 year old Kurdish Iraqi asylum seeker was savagely attacked by a large group in Croydon on Friday. It seems even more people looked on as it happened, or tried in vain to assist the victim. This is a terrible case, which some will try to connect to Brexit. The vast majority of Leave supporters will be as disgusted as anyone else. If anyone feels such hateful acts are what Brexit is about, or that somehow such behaviour has been made acceptable by the vote, then they are completely wrong.
We should also express our sympathies to the victims of the Saint Petersburg bomb attacks on Monday, and those of the chemical weapon attack in Syria yesterday. These incidents show once again how important security and cross-border co-operation on the matter is. Something else that was jumped all over in the Article 50 letter was an alleged threat to stop security co-operation with the EU if it didn't do us a good deal. It's another Lord Howard, this one. Perhaps it could have been better phrased, with those excitable commentators in mind. But May was simply highlighting the necessity for both sides to part on good terms. Goes to show though - in these crucial times, watch your phrasing, everyone!
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