Photo caption: European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier arrives at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels yesterday. There were reports that the UK and the EU were close to a Brexit deal, but Prime Minister Theresa May faces intense political pressure at home.
The Chief Minister will lead a Gibraltar delegation to London this week for high-level talks with UK ministers on Brexit, against the backdrop of reports that the UK and the EU are poised to seal a deal on withdrawal and transitional arrangements.
The Financial Times reported that the main elements of a Brexit treaty text are ready to present to the British cabinet today, but Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said the claim should be treated with scepticism.
The FT, citing unidentified diplomats briefed on the discussions, reported the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, told EU ministers the parameters of a possible agreement were largely defined but still required political endorsement.
“I’ve talked about taking things with a pinch of salt before. That applies here. I’d apply a bucket of salt to this one. Negotiations are ongoing,” the spokesman said.
Yesterday, Mrs May’s Brexit strategy came under attack from all sides, putting in doubt her ability to steer any agreement through parliament and raising the risk of a disruptive “no-deal” exit from the European Union next March.
In a sign that Brexit talks could go down to the wire, EU sources told Reuters they want clarity from London by the end of Wednesday at the latest if there is to be a summit this month to approve a Brexit deal.
Mrs May’s compromise plan, which seeks to maintain close trade ties with the EU in the future, is facing opposition from Brexiteers, pro-Europeans, the Northern Irish party that props up her government, and even some of her own ministers.
“I think it’s the worst of all worlds,” former education minister Justine Greening, who supported staying in the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum, told BBC radio, adding that she did not think there was any chance it could get through parliament.
A British official voiced pessimism about the possibility of a breakthrough with the EU this week due to continued deadlock on the issue of the border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told EU ministers from the 27 other member states that “intense negotiating efforts continue”, adding that the Irish border issue remained unresolved.
Both sides want the border to remain invisible after Brexit but London says a suggested solution that would see the whole UK remaining in a customs area with the EU must have a clear time limit. Brexiteers fear the UK could be trapped indefinitely in the EU’s embrace, thereby frustrating British voters’ wishes.
The EU rejects any time limit to the so-called ‘backstop’ insurance policy to guarantee an open border. It is also demanding an agreement on fishing quotas and efforts to ensure a level regulatory playing field with the UK after Brexit.
“Technically speaking, the text is ready. But there is no political agreement from their side,” a senior EU diplomat said.
It is against this backdrop that Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia will fly to London today ahead of meetings with ministers and officials from various different UK Government departments.
The work will focus on Gibraltar’s exit from the bloc and will include meetings with the Minister for Europe Sir Alan Duncan, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Exiting the European Union Robin Walker and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury John Glen.
The Gibraltar delegation is also scheduled to meet Mims Davies, Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
Mr Picardo and Dr Garcia will be accompanied by the Attorney general, Michael Llamas, QC, and Financial Secretary Albert Mena.
The Gibraltar delegation is expected to return on Thursday.
The Minister for Education and the Environment, Dr John Cortes, will act as Chief Minister until then.