European Union negotiators meet on Friday (23 November) to try to clear the last Brexit hurdle before a Sunday summit is due to endorse the withdrawal deal and future ties agreement, but Spain’s eleventh-hour objections over Gibraltar mean the final text could not be ready until the last minute.
Four months before Britain leaves the EU, the legal divorce treaty and an accompanying political declaration on the two sides’ future ties are ready to be rubber-stamped by UK Prime Minister Theresa May and the leaders of the 27 union states staying on together after Brexit.
Spain has asked for changes to the withdrawal treaty and the declaration on a new EU-UK relationship to make clear any decisions about the disputed British overseas territory of Gibraltar would only be taken in direct talks with Madrid.
Spain wants to negotiate directly with London on all issues related to Gibraltar, which was ceded to the British crown in a peace treaty in 1713.
This had been provided for, initially, in a clause to the draft withdrawal agreement that effectively gave Madrid a veto on any Gibraltar-related agreement between the bloc and the UK.
The clause has, however, disappeared from the final draft.
According to the Spanish daily El País, the controversial text refers to the future relationship that Brussels and London will have to agree upon once the transition period ends and which must be negotiated “with full respect for the respective legal orders”.
Spain accuses the UK of introducing a clause into the withdrawal agreement that would make Gibraltar part of future trade deal with Brussels, without requiring the prior agreement of Spain. Spain rejects that it is part of the United Kingdom.
Sánchez amenaza con votar contra el acuerdo del Brexit por Gibraltar | Internacional | EL PAÍS https://t.co/x6GnDHlp1g
— Sergio Cobos Arco (@sergiocarco1320) November 23, 2018
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said on Thursday that Spain will veto the draft deal on Britain’s exit if no changes are made.
“After my conversation with Theresa May, our positions remain far away. My government will always defend the interests of Spain. If there are no changes, we will veto Brexit,” Sánchez said in a tweet.
After my conversation with Theresa May, our positions remain far away. My Government will always defend the interests of Spain. If there are no changes, we will veto Brexit.
— Pedro Sánchez (@sanchezcastejon) November 22, 2018
Under EU rules, the withdrawal treaty is adopted by qualified majority not unanimous vote, so a single state cannot block it. EU leaders, however, are seeking unity on this most politically sensitive matter.
The Brexit package faces vehement opposition in the British parliament, which must vote in favour for it to take effect. Otherwise the UK risks crashing out of the bloc on 29 March 2019, without an agreement to mitigate economic disruptions.
Determined not to allow any redrafting of either of the two texts and risk derailing the fragile process, EU states have instead proposed to address Spain’s concerns in a separate statement by the 27 leaders on Sunday that would not be part of negotiations with Britain.
Stopping the clock
Marco Aguiriano, Spain’s secretary of state for the EU, said on Thursday that his government could “stop the clock” on the negotiations and force May and the other EU leaders to come back in December unless it gets its way in the next 48 hours.
“The minutes that run through the night and into the hours of the early morning really count as the European council anticipates finishing its business. Or the clock could even be stopped and another European council could be called. That’s nothing extraordinary or surprising; in fact, it’s even fairly usual”, Aguiriano says, as quoted by the Guardian.
Spain accuses UK of treachery over Gibraltar Brexit deal: at last the treaty of Utrecht vindicated https://t.co/1g7n67A8e4
— Giap Tan (@balbec2001) November 23, 2018
The national leaders’ EU negotiators – or ‘sherpas’ – meet at 0900 GMT on Friday in Brussels and May will then come for talks with the head of the bloc’s executive, Jean-Claude Juncker, on Saturday evening, just hours before the summit.
EU diplomats hope a text could be agreed by Friday evening but they also fear Sánchez would want to make a case of discussing it at the top level on Sunday to show determination and win points with voters at home ahead of a December regional election.
The Brexit deal covers financial settlement, expatriates’ rights and the sensitive Irish border, as well as setting a blueprint for future trade and security ties. It must also be backed by the European Parliament to come into force next year.
‘Verges on insanity’
Gibraltar’s chief minister Fabian Picardo said on Thursday that the peninsula was ready for any potential outcome regarding talks on Britain’s exit from the EU.
Picardo told parliament that Spain, the eurozone’s fourth largest economy, “does not need a whip to get the smallest economy in Europe to sit around the table with it and have a meaningful discussion about cooperation.”
The geography of Gibraltar — a 2.6-square-mile (6.8-square-kilometer) rocky outcrop on Spain’s southern tip — meant that there was no shortage of reasons to cooperate with Spain, he added.
Infographic on Gibraltar as Spain threatens to reject any UK-EU Brexit deal unless it guarantees Madrid's veto over the future of the British overseas territory pic.twitter.com/gpUModPURS
— AFP news agency (@AFP) November 22, 2018
For Hamish Thomson, a 44-year-old anaesthetist, “it verges on insanity that a country (Spain) of half-a-million square kilometres with a population of 46 million and profound internal issues spends so much of its energy on a three-mile square outcrop of limestone with 30,000 people on it.”
Elton Moreno, also 44 and a manager at a Gibraltar-based gaming company, said: “I’m not surprised. I’m surprised anyone is surprised that we’re being used in this tug of war. I’m just feeling tired that we always seem to be in the news.
Owen Smith, 41, a barrister, said: “Like the vast majority of Gibraltarians I voted to remain and I’d be happy to see the Brexit process derailed if remaining in the EU was the outcome.
“But I don’t see the current row about Gibraltar as one capable of derailing the Brexit process. Spain is applying pressure to achieve last minute concessions in respect of Gibraltar. I hope they don’t succeed — but I’m worried they might.”
Gibraltar has become a serious stumbling block in Brexit negotiations. I don’t have much to say about it except that I was there this weekend and the runway is crazy as it goes across a road, the Rock is gorgeous, and the monkeys are lovely. pic.twitter.com/I3UgEsnRQZ
— Brian Klaas (@brianklaas) November 22, 2018
In 1969, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco ordered the border between Spain and Gibraltar closed after Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly in 1967 to retain links to Britain.
The border only reopened 13 years later, seven years after his death.