James Forsyth

Will Britain back Madrid for the sake of Brexit?

Will Britain back Madrid for the sake of Brexit?
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Theresa May’s official spokesperson has just issued a statement on Catalonia’s declaration of independence that will please Madrid. It makes clear that the ‘UK does not and will not recognise the Unilateral Declaration of Independence’. It says that the declaration is ‘based on a vote declared illegal by the Spanish courts’. It concludes by saying that ‘we want to see the rule of law upheld, the Spanish constitution respected, and Spanish unity preserved’.

What is telling about this statement is that it doesn’t even included the kind of diplomatically phrased call for restraint that Donald Tusk’s tweet did. Now, you can say that the UK statement is not that dissimilar to the US State Department’s which says it supports the Spanish government constitutional’s measures to ‘keep Spain strong and united’. But I suspect that Brexit has also influenced the UK government’s approach.

Spain is, obviously, an influential EU member state—and thus relevant to the deal that Britain can end up striking. I also would be shocked if London was not calculating that strong support for Madrid on this issue might help make the Spanish feel less inclined to make trouble over Gibraltar when any EU / UK trade deal goes out for ratification.

Mrs May’s position won’t cause her much domestic trouble today; outside Scottish nationalists circles there’s not that much interest in this issue in the UK. But things will become more difficult if the Spanish government starts to use force to try and deal with this problem. If there is a repeat of the kind of police aggression that we saw on referendum day, the government will be pressed to condemn it. Equally if Catalan leaders are prosecuted and sent to prison that would be awkward for London to defend.

But I suspect that the imperatives of Brexit diplomacy means that the UK will want to avoid doing anything other than offering support to Madrid in this crisis.