BRUSSELS/LONDON • Britain and the European Union have agreed on a draft text setting out a close post-Brexit relationship, officials said yesterday, though wrangles over fish and the future of Gibraltar must still be settled before leaders meet on Sunday.
The news sent the pound nearly 1 per cent higher on relief among investors that 18 months of tense negotiation were bearing fruit, keeping Britain close to its biggest market and ensuring nothing much will change for at least two years.
British Prime Minister Theresa May told reporters in London: "The British people want this to be settled, they want a good deal that sets us on course for a brighter future... That deal is within our grasp and I am determined to deliver it."
EU officials said there was a solid consensus that the niggles should not hold up a final deal for Sunday, as the other 27 governments go through the new paperwork.
The main question mark is over whether Spain, seeing Brexit as a chance to swing the EU's weight behind its 300-year campaign to reclaim Gibraltar from Britain, can be persuaded to remain patient.
After a draft treaty last week set the terms for Britain's departure in March, Mrs May had met EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday, hoping to finalise an ambitious declaration on future ties that can help her secure backing at home for the whole Brexit package in the teeth of furious parliamentary opposition, even within her own party.
She is due to meet Mr Juncker again on the eve of the summit, at 6pm tomorrow, and a spokesman for Mr Juncker said that by then there should nothing much left to sort out.
With Spain, France and other EU member states lobbying for various national vested interests in that political declaration - a 26-page wish list on future trade and security ties separate from the 585-page withdrawal agreement - there was concern in Brussels that haggling could get out of hand and derail Sunday's tightly choreographed formal summit of the 27 leaders with Mrs May.
Summit chair Donald Tusk said: "It has been agreed at negotiators' level and agreed in principle at political level."
EU sources told Reuters that other demands from governments would be parked in a separate page or two of short text to be endorsed at the summit.
French calls for access to British fishing grounds and insistence that post-Brexit Britain follow EU environment, tax, labour and industrial rules are largely drafted, leaving a gap for Spain's concerns that Madrid should be given an effective veto over applying any future deal to Gibraltar.
The main text of the political declaration, seen by Reuters, says the EU and Britain agree to develop an ambitious, wide-ranging and balanced economic partnership.
"This partnership will be comprehensive, encompassing a free trade area as well as wider sectoral cooperation... (and will) be underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field."
Crucially for Mrs May, it commits the EU to looking for ways to avoid triggering a "backstop" clause intended to ensure the Irish border remains free of customs checks. Those include, it says, technical and administrative means favoured by Mrs May's pro-Brexit allies that could limit Britain's need to keep its broader economic and trade rules in line with the continent.
The European Commission said Mr Juncker encouraged Mrs May to talk with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, which they had done late on Wednesday, and that Gibraltar, along with some questions on fishing, were what remained unresolved.