EU and UK negotiators work to resolve Spanish impasse ahead of Brexit summit
The European Union was on Friday working to defuse Spanish reservations over Gibraltar ahead of a summit that is due to endorse the bloc's Brexit deal with Britain on Sunday.
Prime Minister Theresa May will continue the work on Saturday evening when she holds talks in Brussels with Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the EU's executive Commission.
National negotiators from the EU member states were reportedly close to reaching an agreement that addressed Spain’s concerns on Gibraltar but was acceptable to all sides.
With four months left until Britain leaves the EU, the legal divorce treaty and an accompanying political declaration are due to be rubber-stamped this weekend in Brussels by Mrs May and the other 27 EU leaders so that they can then go to the respective parliaments.
Spain has asked for changes to both the draft withdrawal treaty and the accompanying declaration on future ties to spell out that any decisions about Gibraltar would only be taken by London and Madrid.
But determined not to allow any redrafting to risk derailing the fragile process, EU states want to address Spain's concerns in a separate statement by the 27 leaders on Sunday that would not be part of negotiations with Britain.
It could refer back to Clause 24 in the EU's 2017 Brexit mandate, which said that, after Brexit, "no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between ... Spain and the United Kingdom".
It would clarify that the EU's reading of the corresponding paragraphs in the divorce treaty and the declaration on future ties is exactly that.
The same statement, a draft of which was seen by Reuters, would also address French concerns on fisheries, as well as highlighting EU demands that Britain will not undercut labour and environmental standards. It also stresses the needs to safeguard expatriates' rights, as well as the Paris climate accord.
EU diplomats hoped a text would be agreed late on Friday, but feared Mr Sanchez would still want to discuss it at the top level on Sunday to demonstrate his determination at home ahead of a December regional election.
"It will only be done by the leaders," said one diplomat.
On Thursday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said: "After my conversation with Theresa May, our positions remain far away," adding: "If there are no changes, we will veto Brexit."
But the UK has made clear that when it negotiates its future relationship with the EU after Brexit, it will include Gibraltar.
That position was repeated by Mrs May during a radio phone-in on BBC 5 Live.
“We’re very clear, as the UK, that when we negotiate on all of these matters in relation to our leaving the European Union and our future, we do so on behalf of the whole UK family including Gibraltar,” the Prime Minister said.
“We’re very clear that our position on Gibraltar and its sovereignty has not changed and will not change, and it’s about the wishes of the people of Gibraltar.”
“What we’ve done in looking at this phase of the negotiations, the Withdrawal Agreement and the political declaration, is actually been working with the Government of Gibraltar and with the Government of Spain to put in the measures that relate to Gibraltar.”
“But our position on sovereignty has not changed.”
Spain's junior minister for the EU said British authorities had consented to Spanish demands granting Madrid prior approval on matters relating to the Rock.
Marco Aguiriano, Spain’s state secretary for EU affairs, said: "We have a promise, a commitment, from the British government, saying they are ready to ... guarantee that they will go along with the clarification we have requested."
But a Downing Street source told the Press Association: "I don't know what he is referring to.”
"Our principles have been very clear, we have negotiated on behalf of the whole of the UK family - that includes Gibraltar and the overseas territories."
Number 10 said it is "not aware" of any moves to add any appendix or addendum to the Withdrawal Agreement to deal with other nations' concerns including Gibraltar or fishing rights.
A UK Government spokesman later told the Chronicle: “Throughout this process we have negotiated openly and constructively with the EU on matters relating to Gibraltar – working closely with Spain and the government of Gibraltar.”
“We have now agreed and finalised a draft Withdrawal Agreement that we look forward to agreeing formally with the Member States on Sunday.”
“The Prime Minister has been absolutely clear that we stand behind British sovereignty for Gibraltar and that we will get a deal on the future that works for the whole UK family.”
In Gibraltar, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo was critical of Spain's stance.
"Spain doesn't need an article in the treaties, the future declaration, or indeed the Withdrawal Agreement, to bring Gibraltar to the table,” he told the BBC.
"Gibraltar has demonstrated that we actually want a direct engagement with Spain on issues."
In Germany, a government spokesman was confident a solution would be found in time for Sunday's summit.
Berlin had earlier said there could be no more technical negotiations at the summit, and that Chancellor Angela Merkel could skip it if all the texts are not ready in advance.
If everything goes according to the plan and the Brexit package is approved on Sunday, the EU will also commit to try to secure prompt ratification by the European Parliament "to provide for an orderly withdrawal", according to the draft statement seen by Reuters.
However, the biggest obstacle to the Brexit accord is the vehement opposition in the British parliament.
Without its approval, Britain could leave the bloc on March 29 without an agreement to mitigate economic and legal disruption.
Former Brexit minister Dominic Raab on Friday said he expected the House of Commons to vote the deal it down.
Mrs May responded that Britain would not get a better deal with the EU if it did not take this one.
MAIN PHOTO: Reuters/Jon Nazca