Denis MacShane / Oct 2019
The Brexit debate is part of the political and media life in France, Germany, Brussels of course but not yet so much in Spain. Why is this?
To live in England is to live with the curse – or the blessing – of Brexit as the only subject of discussion in politics, on television, in the press, in business circles and even in the royal household as the Queen of England has been dragged into Brexit after the Supreme Court over-turned her decision taken on advice from Boris Johnson to suspend Parliament last month.
For those anxious to see Brexit consummated and Britain finally ‘liberated’ from Europe, the moment of ecstasy approaches. For others who see Brexit as the modern version of 1920s isolation and or a disruption to free trade without parallel since the 1930s, Brexit is the worst thing to happen to the British for nearly a century.
No-one really knows what will happen. Business cannot plan. British citizens hoping to come and live and work or retire in Spain do not know if they can take the risk. There are 350,000 so-called passports issued to banks and financial traders in the City of London which gives the right to do business in any city in 27 other European Union member states.
When they are removed how does their business make a profit? There are more than 300,000 British citizens in Spain who are empadronados (officially registered with local councils as a permanent resident) with maybe another half a million who have an apartment or chalet and visit for much of the year. They will lose their health care rights once they are citizens of a third country and not covered by reciprocal EU obligations to look after each other citizens if they fall ill in an EU member state.
And don’t mention Gibraltar. No-one can be sure what will be the status of Gibraltar when the UK leaves the EU? To be sure, no-one in Madrid is looking for a quarrel. As long as Britain was in the EU ministers and officials from London could defend Gibraltar’s special status, privileges, and exotic tax arrangements in the corridors of Brussels. But once that protection has gone and Spain has a new external frontier with a non-EU state?
There are thousands of men and women employed in Gibraltar but who live in neighbouring Spain. Every Gibraltarian is an EU citizen like every Spaniard so both peoples can live, work, to trade as if in the same country. That ends with Brexit. As passport controls and custom checks on the content of car boots become the norm the frontier-crossing workers of Gibraltar are going to feel they have been returned 60 years when Franco ruled and insisted on tough border controls.
Brexit has seen a massive surge of support in Scotland for secession from the London controlled United Kingdom state. The Scottish nationalist secessionists openly say that Scotland should stay in the EU which is what the majority of Scots vote for even if England leaves.
The precedent for Catalonia is obvious. The demagogy of the Scottish secessionists against union with England, including appeals for a European future, are identical to those of Catalans who want to break up the unity of Spain.
Spain sells more goods and services to the UK than it buys from the UK. It is also the top destination both for visits by UK residents and for UK nationals living abroad.
So Brexit in whatever form it takes will impact Spain massively. Whether there is a abrupt crash out by the UK without an agreement – as the hardline pro-Brexit MPs on the right want - or there is a last-minute deal which opens the door to at least a decade of tough negotiations between Brussels and London, the shadow of Brexit will last for many years.
In 2014 I wrote a book Brexit. How Britain Will Leave Europe predicting that Brexit would happen if David Cameron held his populist plebiscite. My new book Brexiternity predicts that for many years to come Brexit will weigh on the political and economic life of Britain, on British society as millions of British citizens lose the right to live, work or retire on the continents, and on the relations and partnership of the four nations of the British Isles – England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
Britain’s status in the world will be reduced as we lose our role as one of the main shapers of EU foreign policy and geo-political interventions.
Britain is a strong supporter in the EU for the integrity and unity of Spain. Josep Borrell is known and liked in London and his task as the EU’s new foreign policy supremo will be made harder if British diplomats and ministers are no longer at his side on the future challenges of foreign policy for Europe.
Yet despite the importance of Brexit for Spain, Madrid and the Moncloa have been strangely absent from the pan-European debate on Brexit which is as much a European question as a British one. Everyone agrees Brexit is lose-lose. The loss is greater for the UK but amputating a nation of 65 million that is the second biggest net contributor to the EU budget, which obeys EU laws, and which offers employment to 3 million EU citizens, including several hundred thousand Spaniards, will weaken the EU.
In London, the voices we hear on Brexit are those of President Macron, Chancellor Merkel, Ireland’s Leo Varadkar, the Dutch or Latvian prime ministers but the voice of Spain is silent.
Obviously, the difficulties in forming a government in Spain make it hard for Madrid to have a voice or a view on Brexit. But Spain will be more affected by Brexit than any other EU member state. Madrid should be a player not passive as Europe decides what to do.