LONDON – Compared with the rising tensions and dramas of Asia, affairs in Europe, such as the about-to-begin withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, or the woes of the ill-structured euro currency, or the unending migrant pressures, or the low economic growth, must seem like matters of small consequence, even parochial.
After all it is in Asia that we have the world’s second- and third-largest industrial powers at loggerheads, North Korea growing ever more dangerous and provocative, the American president clearly losing patience with Pyongyang and China weaponizing its manufactured islands in the South China Sea.
Yet even though Europe may no longer be the powerhouse of the global economy (it now accounts for only 17.5 percent of global GDP) it may still have some useful lessons to offer the wider world about how to handle disputes and defuse quarrels that might otherwise escalate into hot words and then hot actions. Having been the source of the worst and most costly hostilities of the 20th century, one lesson it has certainly learned well is how to avoid them in the 21st.
The latest example of this kind of diplomatic “bomb defusing and disposal” has been over the tiny and rocky outcrop of Gibraltar, jutting out from Spain into the Mediterranean, but belonging to Britain for the last 300 years.
As long as Britain remains in the EU, then Gibraltar, under British sovereignty, remains in the EU, too, with no legal border problems — at least in theory — with its big Spanish neighbor. Indeed, every day 10,000 Spanish workers cross over from Spain to Gibraltar, while many Gibraltar residents in fact have homes along the warm Spanish coast. Occasionally in past years the Spanish authorities have placed obstructions at the border, but generally the cross-over has worked reasonably well.
Once the U.K. leaves the EU, and Gibraltar along with it, then a problem arises. The cross-over border with Spain becomes the external border of the EU itself. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the local airport serving Gibraltar is actually on the Spanish side.
How can there be an open border if one side is inside the EU single market, heavily protected by its tariffs and regulations, while the other side is virtually tariff-free and certainly free of many EU taxes? And how can anything other than a tightly closed border prevent streams of migrants, who can freely move anyway inside the EU, from slipping across and then from Gibraltar entering the U.K. unchallenged — when one of the main British Brexit arguments has been to regain control of its borders and prevent this sort of inflow?
It is no surprise to hear some voices raising again the view that Gibraltar should simply be handed back to Spain, a course that Britain, and the people of Gibraltar, rule out completely.
Difficult border problems also arise on the island of Ireland, where the Republic of Ireland in the south remains a staunch part of the EU and its single market, while North Ireland, as part of the exiting U.K., must step outside, leaving the need for a heavy “frontier” in between — which most Irish people hoped was gone forever.
Scotland faces the same dilemma, but from a different angle. Most of its trade (at least 75 percent) is with England, but a majority voted to remain as part of the EU. If it voted for independence, as some Scots are now again dreaming of, and then somehow gained EU membership, it would have its lifelines to the south and to England ruthlessly cut off and free movement blocked. The dilemma would be impossible and impractical.
These are all sensitive border issues that way back in European history could well have escalated and turned violent. They are not going to do so today because people have learned better. The British prime minister has already made clear that the Gibraltar problem can be solved by, in Winston Churchill’s phraseology, “jaw-jaw rather than war-war.”
Today it should be perfectly possible to find a similar peaceful way forward in Ireland — despite the violence of the last century (and centuries before), while in Scotland the total intermingling of Scottish and English trade, industries, families, customs, security issues and traditions make anything other than a peaceful and even amiable solution to the issue unthinkable.
Indeed, the habit of approaching problems with goodwill, and a search for how each side can gain, rather than lose, could well spread to the whole Brexit negotiation. Instead of threats and grumbling that the two sides are going to hurt each other, and that neither side can win — a very negative view offered by the president of the EU Council of Ministers, Donald Tusk — a better approach would be to see how each side can gain.
After all, the whole of Europe, not just the U.K., now needs to move out of its 20th century straightjacket and into the more open digital age and the new world of networks that beckons. This could be its big chance to do so.
The common aims far outweigh the common quarrels and differences — not least the overriding aim of maintaining a rules-based and liberal international order when it is being so grievously challenged in other parts of the world.
Media commentators love to depict the whole Brexit scene as a messy divorce, with plenty of scrapes and antagonisms ahead. But the British leader, Theresa May, insists it is not a divorce. She is right and they are wrong. If wisely handled it could be much more of a new beginning for all of Europe, an entry into the totally transformed landscape of world trade and security that network connectivity has brought about. The past tensions and barriers that have been erected by history can be circumvented and lowered by human ingenuity, technology and a good dose of mutual goodwill.
That could be a lesson for Asia as well as for Europe.
David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.
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