The funny thing about Spain and Great Britain is they’re two countries which always argue, but are really the two distant cousins who always wrangle at family gatherings.
Passive aggressiveness is the de facto government language of both countries and it’s both asinine and sincere. Over the last three years alone, the Spanish Government has rebuffed Scottish independence, Brexit and threatened the rights of British expats in the EU. A week seldom goes by without a reiteration from Spain that the UK cannot be expected to enjoy the rights of the European Union or access the single market. As a riposte, the UK Government has refused to deny that it will use the 129,000 Spaniards in Great Britain as a bargaining chip (a poor one, given that 309,000 British citizens reside and work in Spain). The UK Government, of course, never admits that its Brexit plans are a flummoxed policy fudge.
Nevertheless, the Spanish and the British have more in common than their foreign policies might suggest. Both countries, perhaps more than any other two, are littered with monuments to their past imperial glories which can legitimately be said to have shaped the modern word over the last 600 years.
Both countries are sweepingly post-imperial, but have never found a comfortable seat for themselves at the global table because they’re no longer at the head of it. The frustration of living in the shadow of such a tall past makes for an almost excusable explanation as to why both Spain and the UK are seeing the rise of reactionary politics in the first decades of the 21st century.
Where the Spanish and British part ways is with how they see and understand one another. France is the most celebrated of British enemies, a fact which obscures the long, complicated interplay between the UK and Spain and the influence of both on the other.
So often the answers to the future rest in the past. If the UK is to reevaluate its relationship with Europe and genuinely wants to move forward with bilateral relationships, then it must do more to ensure its people move past populist cliches about international history. For Spain, if it is to salvage its economic and political gains from being a part of the EU then it must step up and turn vitriol into a positive vision for EU-UK relations.
There is, of course, nothing but poetic irony in Spain maintaining Ceuta and Melilla, on the African coast opposite Gibraltar, which the Spanish proclaim is self-evidently theirs. Gibraltar, forever a thorn in the side of Spanish-British relations, is now the prototype for how an amicable international solution can be secured which puts the rights of citizens before political grievance.
Both countries must place the mantra of “do to others as you would have them do to you” at the heart of their approach to Brexit. To create a meaningful settlement that puts citizens first, they must, as Robert Burns advises, “see themselves as others see them’. Only then can there be any real hope that the post-Brexit world might offer some semblance of friendship over enmity.