Spain digs in with Brexit threat as Gibraltar overshadows European Union summit

By: |
November 24, 2018 10:02 AM

A row between Spain and the U.K. over the British enclave of Gibraltar threatened to overshadow a European Union summit aimed at endorsing Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

Pedestrians leave the British colony of Gibraltar to Spain, crossing a road at the airport, in GibraltarPedestrians leave the British colony of Gibraltar to Spain, crossing a road at the airport, in Gibraltar. (Reuters)

A row between Spain and the U.K. over the British enclave of Gibraltar threatened to overshadow a European Union summit aimed at endorsing Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Spanish officials said Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez might not attend the gathering in Brussels on Sunday unless he gets guarantees first about how the disputed territory will be treated after Brexit. It’s a last-minute obstacle for the U.K. and the rest of the EU, which are aiming to get all EU leaders to give their assent to the Brexit accord this weekend.

No individual country has a veto, but it would be politically and diplomatically embarrassing if Spain continues to withhold its approval. An EU official said late on Friday the summit was still expected to go ahead. “There aren’t enough guarantees yet in the deal that is being negotiated in Brussels, therefore Spain continues to maintain a veto,” Sanchez told a press conference in Havana, Cuba. “If there is no agreement, what will happen is that the European Council is unlikely to take place.”

Sanchez wants to see a satisfactory, written declaration from the U.K. that the 2.6 square-mile territory of Gibraltar — ceded to Britain in 1713 — won’t automatically be covered by any future U.K.-EU trade agreement. The spat comes 18 months after the U.K. started negotiations with the EU over its withdrawal from the bloc. An agreement in principle was reached earlier this month and leaders have insisted there can be no issues left unresolved going into the summit. The sign-off will pave the way for May to try to get support for the deal from the U.K. Parliament, which might prove the trickiest step yet.

After EU and Spanish officials spent Friday in Brussels trying to agree wording to sit alongside the draft Brexit treaty, Sanchez said he hadn’t been offered enough. A European Commission spokesman said earlier he expected the summit to go ahead, as did a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Before Brexit negotiations started, the U.K. agreed with the EU that any future trade agreement won’t cover Gibraltar without the express consent of Spain. The Spanish government said wording in the deal agreed this month doesn’t make that clear.

Spain lays claim to Gibraltar, a rocky outcrop off its southern coast, and questions the treaty that ceded it to Britain. The issue is also playing into regional elections in Andalusia, the Spanish region that neighbors Gibraltar, and that is a traditional stronghold for Sanchez’s Socialist party.

May is scheduled to meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels on Saturday night. The summit is due to start at 9.30 a.m. the following day. The EU is planning to release a communique on Gibraltar alongside the text of the Brexit deal. In a statement, a U.K. government spokesperson said Britain will “negotiate future agreements on behalf of all territories for whose external relations we are responsible, including Gibraltar.”

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