Why we’re all at sea over Brexit’s fallout
Whether you’re a Brexiteer or Remainer, leaving the EU has wider implications for our nation than the economic ones we are all familiar with
Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, Iranian supertanker, Brexit.
Obsession with the one has taken eyes off the ball from the other. Although, after a fashion, there is a connection between both.
With Brexit endlessly dominating the airwaves, there has been comparatively little interest in, or discussions of, the implications of the seizing at gunpoint by Royal Marines of an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar.
Asked on the radio whether seizing the tanker was legal, the new foreign secretary Dominic Raab simply maintained that it was, without going into specifics.
From what I can tell, the balance of independent opinion seems to be that the vessel was in Gibraltarian waters and the British action was legal within international law.
Nevertheless, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and the Iranians, who described the seizing of their tanker as an act of piracy, have responded by detaining a British-owned tanker on flimsy grounds.
Incidentally, I say British-owned, but the registration system of merchant vessels makes it difficult to apply such easy labels. None of the crew of the Stena Impero are British – which is probably one reason that the matter has not been elevated to a national crisis. And the captain of the “Iranian” tanker Grace 1 is actually Indian.
The justification for boarding and detaining Grace 1 has been given by the British government that it was breaking EU sanctions as it was allegedly intending to deliver crude oil to Syria.
Quite apart from the issue of whether the Americans were really behind the action, this raises a variety of other questions.
The first is whether the EU can legitimately act as a superstate imposing economic sanctions which have to be followed by third parties.
Iran is, of course, not in the EU, and as such says it is not bound by EU sanctions. Helpfully, it has no friends in the matter, nor does it have nuclear weapons – at least at the moment.
Russia is not in the EU either. Nor is China.
As the EU adopts a joint foreign policy and seeks to become an international armed enforcer of rules it has devised itself, are we to believe that if a Russian merchant vessel was headed for Syria, the EU would intercept and detain it, with all the dangers to world peace which could potentially follow?
And when were the British people asked whether they approved the use of the Royal Navy as an armed implementer of EU policy?
There is linkage with Brexit. Leave voters in the 2016 referendum did not know what they were voting for, or so it is often said.
By the same token, did Remain voters know what they were voting for? Were they told that EU membership would involve armed interventions by British forces like this in the support of a EU cause? All the talk about Brexit has been focussed on economic matters almost to the total exclusion of all other considerations.
Bosnia, Ukraine, Libya... When it has come to truly international affairs, the record of the EU does not give confidence.
Some say it should stick to being a trading bloc, but it clearly doesn’t want to.
There has been talk of the EU having its own army. Once it has its own army, it will need to find a role for it. “Peacekeeping” would sound good, as if it was doing something useful. Peacekeeping in Europe. Somewhere like, say, the Ukraine.
In a few months’ time the UK may have left the EU. If and when that happens, no doubt the UK will continue to work closely with our European partners on international matters.
Nevertheless it is conceivable that at some point the EU might impose sanctions which the UK, now out of the EU, did not feel bound to follow.
Then Britain would be in the same position as Iran. Potentially a British-owned merchant vessel could be boarded at gunpoint by French marines in the Mediterranean and the crew held in custody.
As you yawn as the latest politician or economist goes on the airwaves to talk about deal or no deal, it is at least something different to think about when considering Brexit and its implications.