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Spain threatens Brexit summit as May heads to Brussels

Preparations for a summit to endorse Britain's deal to quit the European Union risked running aground on the rock of Gibraltar on Friday, as Spain defended its veto over the fate of the tiny territory.

Spain threatens Brexit summit as May heads to Brussels
The border between Gibraltar and Spain is still a sticking point. Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and leaders of the other 27 EU member states are to meet Sunday to approve their divorce agreement and set a course for negotiating their future post-Brexit relationship.
   
But Spanish officials emerged from talks on Friday warning that Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez might not attend if London does not put in writing a promise that no future accord on EU relations involving Gibraltar will be signed without Madrid's specific assent.
   
“We have demanded that it be published by the British authorities before the European Council on Sunday,” Luis Marco Aguiriano Nalda, state secretary for European affairs, told reporters in Brussels.
   
Both British and EU negotiators said that the withdrawal agreement itself would not change at this stage, but in London a spokesman for Number 10 had earlier said: “We will work with the governments of Gibraltar and Spain on our future relationship.”
   
It was not immediately clear if this promise would be enough to shift the logjam. In legal terms, Spain's disapproval would not halt the divorce settlement, but would embarrass EU leaders keen to show that the 27 remain 
united despite Brexit tensions.
   
And, as Aguiriano noted, any final relationship negotiated between London and Brussels after Brexit day on March 29 would eventually have to be approved by all remaining member states — giving Spain a de facto veto further down the line.
   
May is due in Brussels on Saturday to see EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, but diplomats told AFP that no more substantive negotiations would take place and that Sunday's summit would simply see 
leaders sign off on the fruit of 17 months of dialogue.
   
A European diplomat told AFP that Gibraltar had been the sole remaining bone of contention in the meeting of so-called “diplomatic sherpas” — who guide their national leaders to the summit.
   
But he said that when the minutes of Sunday's meeting are read out they will include language stressing the importance of Britain maintaining a level-playing field in trade rules during the post-Brexit transition and on 
fishing rights.
   
And the summit would make it clear that the European Council, which represents member states, would take the lead over the Commission in negotiating future ties — another measure that will ensure Madrid that its voice will be heard before any final settlement is reached.
 
Parliamentary challenge
 
After that, May will have to sell the deal to the British Parliament, an even greater political challenge.
   
May refused to say whether she would resign if parliament eventually votes down the legal divorce agreement that the EU is set to endorse on Sunday, alongside a shorter political framework to guide talks on future ties.
   
“This isn't about me… I am focused on ensuring we get this deal,” she said during a call-in show on BBC radio, adding that she would be touring “up and down” Britain to explain the agreement.
   
“If this deal does not go through, we are back at square one. What we end up with is more division and more uncertainty,” she said.   
 
May, who voted to stay in Europe in the 2016 referendum, also dismissed calls for a second vote — but then refused to say whether her deal was preferable to remaining in the bloc.
   
Instead, she said Britain could build a “better future” for itself outside the European Union.

BREXIT

BREXIT: Spain and EU suggest removing Gibraltar border

Madrid and Brussels have approached the British government with a proposal for removing the border fence between Spain and Gibraltar in order to ease freedom of movement, Spain's top diplomat said Friday.

BREXIT: Spain and EU suggest removing Gibraltar border

“The text presented to the United Kingdom is a comprehensive proposal that includes provisions on mobility with the aim of removing the border fence and guaranteeing freedom of movement,” Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said, according to a ministry statement.

Such a move would make Spain, as representative of Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone, “responsible for controlling Gibraltar’s external borders”, it said.

The Schengen Area allows people to move freely across the internal borders of 26 member states, four of which are not part of the EU.

There was no immediate response from London.

A tiny British enclave at Spain’s southern tip, Gibraltar’s economy provides a lifeline for some 15,000 people who cross in and out to work every day.

Most are Spanish and live in the impoverished neighbouring city of La Línea.

Although Brexit threw Gibraltar’s future into question, raising fears it would create a new “hard border” with the EU, negotiators reached a landmark deal for it to benefit from the rules of the Schengen zone just hours before Britain’s departure on January 1, 2021.

Details of the agreement have yet to be settled.

With a land area of just 6.8 square kilometres (2.6 square miles), Gibraltar is entirely dependent on imports to supply its 34,000 residents and the deal was crucial to avoid slowing cross-border goods trade with new customs procedures.

Albares said the proposal would mean Madrid “taking on a monitoring and protection role on behalf of the EU with regards to the internal market with the removal of the customs border control” between Spain and Gibraltar.

The deal would “guarantee the free movement of goods between the EU and Gibraltar” while guaranteeing respect for fair competition, meaning businesses in the enclave would “compete under similar conditions to those of other EU operators, notably those in the surrounding area”.

Although Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713, Madrid has long wanted it back in a thorny dispute that has for decades involved pressure on the frontier.

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