Theresa May visits Brussels to pave way for EU leaders' summit - but Spain airs fears
British Prime Minister Theresa May will this afternoon meet with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for talks aimed at paving the way for an EU leaders' summit on Sunday.
Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has told the Dáil that his EU counterparts meeting in Brussels signalled broad approval for the draft Brexit deal, which was published last week.
But Mr Coveney added that Spain had "raised concerns" about the future of Gibraltar, a disputed British territory bordering Spain, after Brexit kicks in.
Brussels officials confirmed that Spain was threatening to veto the EU Brexit treaty, which is still expected to be signed by EU leaders at Sunday's summit. Officials hope Spanish objections that the deal does not explicitly state Madrid will have a veto on future EU-Gibraltar relations can be overcome, along with concerns by a host of countries over access to UK fishing waters.
The short visit to Brussels will come as a welcome respite for Mrs May from her ongoing battles in London over the deal unveiled eight days ago.
EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has made it clear that the draft deal is effectively closed to further negotiation, rejecting calls by UK critics of the deal.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 MPs are propping up Mrs May's minority government, flexed its muscles by not voting with the government on budget measures on Monday.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds followed up yesterday with a call to the prime minister to renegotiate the draft deal.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that British finance minister Philip Hammond and former foreign minister Boris Johnson are expected to attend the annual conference of the DUP in Belfast this weekend.
Items expected to be covered at today's Brussels meeting include an extension to the transition period which sees no change in EU-UK relations after Brexit happens on March 29 next. At present, this is fixed at December 31, 2020, but it is likely to be renewed once, until either the end of 2021 or 2022.
But a bigger focus will be the 15-page non-binding declaration on future EU-UK relations post-Brexit. Officials close to the process believe this could be enhanced ahead of the weekend summit, and this may improve Mrs May's slim chances of getting her parliament to ratify this deal.
This will attempt the difficult task of straddling the Brexiteers' objections to apparently locking the UK into the EU customs union and single market, and the need for continued UK access to EU markets. Irish interests occur here as Mrs May will seek indications that the Irish backstop, "deemed an insurance policy," will never need to be used.
Against this, the EU will be pushing a deal on access to UK fishing waters.