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Deal or no deal, we need answers

07 April 2017

The consequences of leaving the EU have been left culpably unclear, says Paul Vallely


Disputed territory: the Rock of Gibraltar, singled out in the EU guidelines

Disputed territory: the Rock of Gibraltar, singled out in the EU guidelines

IT IS hard not to feel sorry for the people of Gibraltar. After 96 per cent of them voted to re­­main in the European Union, they now find themselves being dragged out anyway by the voters on the English mainland.

Then they suffered the indignity of being entirely disregarded by Theresa May in her letter to the EU triggering the start of Britain’s exit negotia­tions (News, 31 March).

To add injury to the insult, the EU then declared that Spain could op­­erate a veto to exclude Gibraltar from any post-Brexit trade deal. And then the former Conser­vative leader, Lord Howard, publicly declared that Britain was ready to go to war with Spain over Gibraltar.

Mrs May laughed off her predecessor’s han­kering for a return to Palmerstonian gunboat diplomacy. Most people dismissed his sabre-rattling as unrealistic. But then the bien pensant classes, not too long ago, insisted that the broad­brush simplicities of the whole out campaign were unrealistic. And we see the result.

What is inescapable is that, within four days of the UK’s triggering the official process to leave the EU — which, for all its flaws, has maintained peace for 90 years on a continent plagued by wars for centuries — we have a reputable British poli­tician talking about waging war in Europe. And it is but one example of the myriad unthought-through complications of what leaving the EU will actually mean.

We have seen a great deal of evidence of that in recent sessions of the House of Commons Select Committee on Exiting the European Union. In one memorable exchange, the committee’s chair­man, Hilary Benn, quizzed the Brexit Secretary, David Davies, on a list of details. He was trying to tease out the reality behind the Government’s insistence that a bad deal with the EU would be worse than no deal.

What would no deal actually mean, he asked. Would it mean that Europe would impose a tax of 30 to 40 per cent on British meat and milk exports? Yes, Mr Davies said. And a ten-per-cent tariff on British cars? Yes. And customs checks on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland? Of a kind. And Britain’s exclusion from the United States/EU airline-flights agreement? Yes. And an end to passporting rights for the UK finance sector? Mr Davies was not sure. And an end to the EHIC health cards that get British tourists free emergency health care in the EU? “I haven’t looked at that one,” Mr Davies replied.

The committee this week published its report condemning the lack of government research on all this, and more. A minority of Tories on the committee dissented, but the report constituted what one Liberal Democrat called “a devastating critique of the shambles that is the Conservative Brexit strategy”.

Of course, there is a balance to be struck on how much detail the Government can publicly release about its negotiating tactics. But Brexit­eers and Remainers alike must concede that, before the vote, not enough thought was given to the detailed consequences of an “out” result.

Now that the die is cast, it is hard to see what justification there can be for not doing this kind of contingency costing behind the scenes.

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