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Monday, 3 April 2017

Brexit and Collateral Damage

Heads of terms for negotiating Britain's status in relation to the European union are simply in draft, yet a former leader of the Conservative Party is talking about the possibility - however remote - of military confrontation between the UK and Spain in order to resist any preemptive Spanish move against the sovereign integrity of Gibraltar. Was such a reaction expected by the President of the European Council when he presented his list of conditions for Britain's separation from the Union, which he declared must be met before future trade relations can be discussed?

If he did not expect it, he is deeply ignorant of British history: but there is no reason why a Pole - who carries the burden of an extremely complex and painful history - should know or care about the residual consequences of the Treaty of Utrecht which dates to the second decade of the eighteenth century. The Poland that we see on a map of contemporary Europe was configured only in 1945, in consequence of the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences which were used by the winning side from the Second World War to resolve the most outstanding legacy questions from the conflict. Germany was meant to pay the USSR dearly for the murder and destruction that had wantonly been visited by the Nazi state on Soviet territory. The size of Germany was to be reduced, by almost 40%; and the border areas where German-speaking minorities in France [Alsace and parts of Lorraine] in Italy [South Tyrol] and in Czechoslovakia [mainly the so-called Sudetenland, but also areas of Slovakia] where minorities of pan-Germanists had hoped to be returned to Fatherland in the event of a successful outcome to the war were firmly settled in favour of the occupying democracies. The Sudeten Germans were to be expelled, and this was carried out over the following few years. More dramatically, the whole of East Prussia and Silesia, and most of Pomerania were to be cleared of German-speaking inhabitants. Their homes and public assets were to be taken over by Poles, who were themselves expelled from the west of Ukraine and Belorussia in order to enable the USSR to expand westwards. Massive inhumanity was shown to the German expelees, and the Poles who were resettled also underwent huge privation.

Many German families resent the loss of farms and homes that their ancestors occupied for centuries, as do Poles whose ancestral homes in around cities like Lviv [Lvov to Poles] are permanently lost. Through the years of the iron curtain and the cold war it became ever more clear that any attempt to reverse the brutally pragmatic frontier changes that were imposed in 1945-50 would bring new conflicts. This fact was explicitly recognised when the German Democratic Republic was allowed to merge into the Federal Republic without any great European Congress [as had been held in Vienna and in Berlin in the nineteenth century] to get everybody's explicit buy-in to the established frontiers and population distribution.

Spain is not proposing to expel Gibraltarians in favour of Castilians. It is not even explicitly claiming a transfer of sovereignty; though that is known to be a long-term objective. The issue seems so small and so unimportant, to peoples whose experience within the past seventy years has been massively traumatic, that most Europeans would simply nod the point about Gibraltar through as the terms of negotiation were discussed. Perspective is massively important in these matters.

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