UK prime minister Theresa May will win unanimous support from her European Union counterparts for the Brexit deal after an 11th-hour compromise over Gibraltar.
Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez had threatened to veto the deal at Sunday’s summit after claiming it reneged on a previous commitment over the future of ‘the Rock.’ While he failed to get the substance of the deal changed, he climbed down from his position on Saturday afternoon after receiving written assurances from the UK government and European commission.
The compromise brokered during through-the-night talks saw the green light given to Sunday’s emergency European Council, where the likes of German chancellor Angela Merkel will wave through the Brexit deal which has been negotiated over the last 18 months.
“We have received sufficient guarantees to be able to reach a solution to a conflict that has lasted more than 300 years between the United Kingdom and Spain,” Sanchez told reporters in Madrid.
He made the statement after confirming his support for the Brexit deal in telephone calls to EU leaders.
European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said the compromise reached was the result of “solidarity, determination and dialogue.”
I just spoke to Prime Minister @sanchezcastejon. Solidarity, determination and dialogue are the European way of finding solutions.
— Jean-Claude Juncker (@JunckerEU) November 24, 2018
The go-ahead from Madrid allowed European Council president Donald Tusk, who will chair Sunday’s summit, to formally recommend the deal. In an invitation letter to the leaders of the 27 member states, Tusk said “no-one will have reasons to be happy” on Sunday, but concluded: “I believe that we have finally found the best possible compromise.”
May’s Saturday night talks
May will meet both Juncker and Tusk in Brussels on Saturday evening to prepare for the summit.
In a bid to lighten the mood, Tusk tweeted to say he was taking inspiration from Queen for Sunday’s proceedings.
As a motto for tomorrow, the words of Freddie Mercury, who passed away exactly 27 years ago: "Friends will be friends, right till the end".
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) November 24, 2018
But the disagreement over Gibraltar had though risked an 11th-hour postponement of the crucial summit until December. The dispute was sparked on Monday when the Spanish government raised an objection to an innocuous sounding article in the 585-page withdrawal agreement — which many believe was motivated by the interests of Sanchez’s socialist party in the Andalusian elections next Sunday.
The article says simply that the EU and UK will conclude an agreement on their future relationship — the all important trade deal — before the end of the transition.
Spain was furious that the article did not explicitly state that the deal would not apply to Gibraltar without their agreement — a condition that appeared in the negotiating guidelines given by the European Council to the EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier at the outset of the Brexit process.
Spain demanded that the withdrawal agreement should be amended but was refused over fears that other countries would call for their own changes. France wanted firm guarantees on access to UK waters for its fishing fleets after Brexit.
In the end, Sanchez settled for written agreement from the UK government that the withdrawal agreement “imposes no obligations regarding the territorial scope of future agreements.”
Sanchez said the agreement ensured Gibraltar’s relationship with the EU “will go through Spain” and, in comments that risk inflaming the situation, added: “We have to talk about co-sovereignty and many other things with the UK.”
A UK government spokesperson explained it meant the British lawmakers would talk directly with Spain over any Gibraltar-specific issues involved in any trade deal.
However, they added: “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.”
And the chief minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, issued a defiant statement saying: “No declarations agreed by the remaining EU 27 or the European Institutions will ever change the undiluted British sovereignty or security of Gibraltar.”
Although the compromise means the deal will get over the line, the issues of Gibraltar and fishing rights are likely to explode back onto the scene once negotiations over trade begin after Brexit.