The UK Government insisted yesterday that it will not exclude Gibraltar from negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the European Union, after Spain demanded a veto on the next phase of the Brexit negotiations even before the divorce deal was rubber-stamped.
Theresa May’s government was reacting after Spain warned it might not back the draft Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and the EU unless there was clarity that Madrid would have the deciding voice on Gibraltar’s inclusion in any deal on the future relationship.
Spain alone cannot block the adoption of the withdrawal agreement, which is subject a qualified majority vote of the remaining 27 EU states in Brussels on Sunday.
But its objection further complicates Mrs May’s task of securing an orderly exit from the EU for Britain.
And in Gibraltar, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said the “eleventh hour tactics” were at odds with the constructive approach taken by all sides in the process so far.
He said the language of vetoes “should be a thing of the past” and that Spain’s latest stance would do little to foster mutual confidence and trust going forward.
Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said Spain wanted the withdrawal text to make clear that future negotiations on ties between Brussels and post-Brexit Britain were separate from those on Gibraltar’s future relationship with the EU, which he said must be first agreed by London and Madrid.
“Future negotiations on Gibraltar are separate negotiations. And that is what needs to be made clear,” Mr Borrell said.
“Until it is clear … we will not be able to give our agreement.”
At issue is Article 184 of the draft Withdrawal Agreement, which Mr Borrell claimed had been “introduced overnight” into the text and sent to Mrs May by EU negotiators without Spain’s knowledge.
According to Article 184 of the draft divorce deal, “the EU and the United Kingdom shall make every effort, in good faith and with full respect for their respective legal systems, to adopt the measures necessary to negotiate rapidly the agreements governing their future relationship.”
Madrid is concerned it would in effect extend any deal on the future agreement to Gibraltar without Spain first having a say.
Although the legal service of the EU Council has tried to reassure Spain that the text does not preclude this, Madrid is seeking further clarification.
It wants to retain what it sees as its right to negotiate the future on Gibraltar with Britain on a bilateral basis, giving it an effective veto in the same way as it had during the withdrawal phase with controversial Clause 24.
Unless the Spanish Government gets that clarity, it will not approve the Withdrawal Agreement, Mr Borrell warned yesterday.
“We want the interpretation of that clause to be clarified,” he said.
Over the weekend, European diplomats said they did not expect Spain’s concerns to derail the Withdrawal Agreement.
But yesterday an EU diplomat said the issue could go as far as a summit of all EU leaders scheduled for Sunday aimed at rubber-stamping the Brexit deal, and where other outstanding points including fishing rights and a limit on any extension of a post-Brexit transition phase are due to be raised.
In London, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “The draft withdrawal agreement agreed last week covers Gibraltar.”
“The PM has been clear that we will not exclude Gibraltar and the other overseas territories and the crown dependences from our negotiations on the future relationship.”
“We will get a deal that works for the whole UK family.”
Last night the Gibraltar Government said it was not surprised that Madrid had used “the eleventh-hour tactic” to raise new Gibraltar-related issues as part of the Brexit negotiations.
It said the Mr Borrell’s statements were “regrettable” and ran contrary to the “positive and constructive” approach during face-to-face discussions involving Gibraltar during the negotiations on withdrawal.
These discussions commenced under the Partido Popular Government in March and were continued by the incoming PSOE administration as from June.
“It’s no surprise that we are seeing the Spanish Government raise issues at the last minute,” Mr Picardo said.
“The position taken by the Spanish Government today does little to build mutual confidence and trust going forward.”
“The language of vetoes and exclusions should be the language of the past.”
“It has no place in the modern Europe of today at a time when both the United Kingdom and Gibraltar are trying to build a new positive future relationship with the EU.”