What has just happened with Gibraltar? The Prime Minister of Spain had threatened to “veto” Brexit but now says he has received assurances - suggesting that something happened this weekend. It did, but it was more about politics than substance.
Spain’s PM, Pedro Sanchez, leads a minority government facing important elections next month. His position is weaker than Theresa May’s and his confidence and supply relationships much more complex.
Sanchez's government has been under pressure to call a General Election even since they took over around half a year ago. Which makes a political row over Spain’s national obsession – the status of Gibraltar – the perfect distraction.
Sanchez has issued hollow threats to "veto" Brexit, even though he has no power to follow up on them (although Michel Barnier would be reluctant to proceed with negotiations if Spain was really unhappy hence why Spain fell into line this weekend).
Spain had already secured a supposed veto over the future relationship and Gibraltar back in April 2017. But that too was a stunt as agreeing any future deal would likely need the unanimous backing of all the EU27 anyway - Spain already had veto but so does, say, Malta or Latvia.
To get today’s summit over the line the UK agreed yesterday that the future relationship won't automatically apply to all UK territories, while simultaneously setting out its plans that it will. The letter changed literally nothing but still allowed Sanchez to point to something and pretend he’d won.
Despite the headlines, many of which have reported the story as another example of Theresa May conceding ground, this is a minor and cosmetic change – as evidenced by the fact that the Gibraltar government received the news so calmly. Do you think they’d have taken it so well if it wasn’t?
All this reminds me of a brilliant anecdote I once heard from a senior Israeli negotiator – and one which shines some light on the ongoing Brexit negotiations. The diplomat had participated in the Annapolis peace conference (which attempted to reboot the Israel-Palestine peace process) in 2007. Both the Palestinians and Israelis had apparently agreed an approach when, at the last minute, the Palestinians asked for changes to the text.
Total panic ensued with the Americans fearing humiliation if the Palestinians pulled the plug. A huge debate ensued. The Israeli negotiation team were shown the requested changes before finally deciding they could live with them. The changes were material but not too fundamental.
When the Palestinians were told this, it triggered total panic in their camp that they must have accidentally conceded something to the Israelis. They simply couldn’t believe the Israelis would have accepted the changes in good faith. They were determined to believe that they were being screwed over or betrayed.
So after pulling everything apart the Palestinians demanded everyone go back to the original text. And that's what eventually happened - letting the conference go ahead with a huge amount of drama all round.
The anecdote is instructive because it speaks of how people can lose perspective in negotiations and become convinced they're being betrayed even when probably aren’t. The Palestinians lost the opportunity to get a better text in their misguided belief that they must have been being betrayed.
Israelis now teach this as an instructive case in how negotiations should work. You need to get experts to look at the actual text, not rely on headlines, drama or spin from other side. On Gibraltar, of course Sanchez is saying he won. As someone once said: he would say that wouldn't he.
There will be inevitably be attempts by EU to ‘screw over’ Gibraltar at some point. Similarly, the EU will try to get more on fish, level playing field issues and so on later in the negotiations (precisely because they haven’t got what they wanted yet). But for now all those issues are for future discussions. Just because the EU will want to come back for me, doesn’t mean we have actually sold out.
Yet too many of our parliamentarians and commentators tend to take at face value any statement by the EU. We need to apply the same healthy scrutiny to the Commission’s spin that it’s getting its way on fish or level playing field issues (they haven't - believe me some EU27 diplomats are pretty upset) as we do to when Theresa May claims we will take back control of our laws (the fact is we will take back control of most of our laws in the backstop, but not quite all).
At present Gibraltar is already outside the customs union so there's a customs border now between the UK and Gibraltar, and indeed between Spain and the Rock. So it isn't clear that Gibraltar would want to be part of a future trade agreement between the EU and UK anyway.
This whole confected Gibraltar drama has changed nothing. Spain still has veto over any future arrangement, as all countries do. Spain will try to push for more on Gibraltar, and the UK will have to resist that. In the meantime, everyone needs to remember what the Palestinians lost at Annapolis. Keep calm and look at the text.