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Europe heads off Gibraltar spat to save Brexit summit

Updated November 25, 2018


Madrid: Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez holds a press conference on Saturday to announce that his government will back a Brexit deal with Britain after reaching an agreement on Gibraltar.—AFP
Madrid: Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez holds a press conference on Saturday to announce that his government will back a Brexit deal with Britain after reaching an agreement on Gibraltar.—AFP

BRUSSELS: European leaders resolved a last-minute dispute over the future of Gibraltar on Saturday, clearing the way for a summit to approve the Brexit deal.

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez withdrew a threat to boycott Sunday’s European Council just hours before Britain’s Ther­­­esa May was due in Brussels.

The British premier plans to meet EU leaders Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, even though diplomats say the agreement is ready for EU leaders to approve.

Ahead of her arrival, dip­­lomats had scrambled for an unexpected intense final round of discussion, after Spain insisted on keeping a veto over future changes to EU ties with Gibraltar.

Then Britain issued a sta­­­tement saying it would continue bilateral talks with Spain after Brexit on March 29 — and Sanchez relented.

“I have just announced to the King that Spain has reached an agreement on Gibraltar,” he told a news conference. “The Europ­ean Council will therefore be held tomorrow. Europe and the United Kingdom have accepted Spain’s dem­ands. Spain has lifted the veto and will vote in favour of Brexit.”

Even as Sanchez was speaking, the president of the European Council Don­ald Tusk was finally able to issue his letter inviting the leaders of EU member states to Sunday’s summit.

“I will recommend that on Sunday we approve the outcome of the Brexit negotiations,” Tusk said, saying the deal on the table reduces “the risks and losses resulting from the United Kingdom’s withdrawal”. “And although no-one will have reasons to be happy on that day, there is one thing I would like to stress: at this critical time, the EU27 has passed the test of unity and solidarity.”

According to Tusk’s invitation, the withdrawal agreement protects citizens’ rights and the Nort­hern Ireland peace proc­ess, while ensuring Britain will keep paying EU dues during a transition period.

Alongside the withdrawal treaty, a second short political declaration will also be approved on Sunday.

This, Tusk said, will act as a roadmap for negotiations after Brexit day on March 29 to “build the best possible relationship with the UK after Brexit, as friends and partners”.

So far, nothing in the painful 17-month withdrawal process has gone smoothly, and on Friday, Sanchez insisted that Madrid holds a veto over the fate of Gibraltar in post-Brexit negotiations.

“If there’s no agreement ... there very probably won’t be a European Cou­ncil,” he declared, referring to Sunday’s summit of 27 EU leaders ahead of their encounter with May.

Gibraltar, a rocky outcrop home to a port and around 30,000 people, is a British territory claimed by Spain and a bone of contention as London negotiates a new relationship with Brussels after Brexit on March 29.

On Saturday, as the dispute threatened to derail the summit, London issued a statement saying Number 10 would not use the withdrawal agreement as cover to cut short its dialogue with Spain.

“For the withdrawal ne­­gotiations, given there are some circumstances which are specific to Gibraltar, we held talks with Spain which directly involved the Government of Gibraltar,” May’s spokesman said.

“These were constructive and we look forward to taking the same approach to the future relationship.” In legal terms, Spain’s disapproval would not have halted the divorce settlement, but it would embarrass EU leaders keen to show that the 27 are united, and might delay Sunday’s largely symbolic summit.

Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2018