Our free and fearless press was, it seems, looking to tone down its howling denunciation of anything and everything coming out of the EU: after Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, had set out his draft negotiating position on Article 50 talks, both the Daily Mail and Sun were about to adopt a more measured tone. But, after a perusal of the small print, both were aghast - and hostilities were duly resumed.
The normally thundering tone of Daily Mail Comment, the authentic voice of the Vagina Monologue, was replaced with “A welcome end to EU sabre rattling” (the pretence that the EU, by merely sitting there in Brussels, is “sabre rattling”, must be maintained). Over at the Baby Shard bunker, today’s Sun Says tells “There’s plenty to object to in EU’s response to Article 50 letter - but let’s not overreact”. So what changed all that?
Ah well. The sting in this particular tail is Gibraltar, ceded to Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 and now a British Overseas Territory. There, the vote to Remain was a massive 96%. The Rock is heavily dependent on maintaining free movement: thousands of its workers cross the border with Spain every day, coming over from the nearby town of La Linea de la Concepción. The concept of “hard Brexit” would not go down well there.
And the press, as so often, forgot about that until the news broke yesterday: “After lobbying from Spanish diplomats, a clause has been inserted in the EU’s draft Brexit negotiating guidelines that appears to allow Spain to exclude Gibraltar from any transitional single market access arrangement or future trade deal with the UK if it is not satisfied with the status of the territory”. Whoops! And there was more.
“This suggests that unless Britain is willing to let its citizens on ‘the rock’ be subject to an inferior economic future than those in the UK, the EU has effectively handed the Spanish government a veto on Britain’s entire future relationship with the bloc”. Those dastardly foreigners - how very dare they! This only served to confirm press conviction that anyone who talks foreign is not to be trusted. There was, by common consent, “fury”.
“Fury as Spain is handed the right to BLOCK Gibraltar from any Brexit deal by the small print of Donald Tusk's Article 50 plan” howled the Mail. “Fury at EU plans for Spain veto on Gibraltar … Spanish power grab row clouds progress” screamed the Sun, telling readers “An EU official said Gibraltar was ‘disputed territory’, despite being in British hands for 300 years”. But they have red phone boxes! We must dispatch a gunboat!
There was a predictable response: “The move infuriated Tory MPs who accused Spain of trying to steal sovereignty”. There would be “no sell-out”. Dammit, they would write to the Times about it, I tell you! But none of those frothing and ranting had understood the very basic point: Britain no longer has a seat at the table. Every other EU member state is agnostic on Gibraltar - except Spain. Spain lobbies; Spain wins. End of story.
Gibraltar was always going to be a problem for Britain and an opportunity for Spain. That the Europhobic press missed that only underscores their uselessness. No change there.