BRUSSELS • Prime Minister Theresa May headed to Brussels yesterday to try to finalise a blueprint for Britain's future ties with the European Union, hoping to secure commitments that will appease Brexit rebels at home.
With just over four months before Britain leaves the bloc, the two sides are trying to hammer out their divorce terms and an outline of their future relationship before a summit on Sunday.
That would give their Parliaments enough time to consider a deal that will end more than 40 years of partnership.
The blueprint on future ties is a political document of about 20 pages, meant to be agreed side by side with an exit treaty of 600 pages of dense legal text, unveiled last week.
That draft accord so far has done little to win over lawmakers in Britain, with euro sceptics in Mrs May's Conservative Party and her allies in Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party piling on pressure to try to force her to change tack.
It has also stirred some anger in other EU capitals, with Spain threatening to vote against the treaty over Gibraltar and others at odds over fishing rights and trade.
Without approval from EU leaders and Parliament back home, Britain risks leaving the EU abruptly with no treaty governing its relations to the bloc, a scenario that companies fear would cut supply lines and thwart investment and trade.
The EU is trying to discourage Britain from any renegotiation of the draft treaty, while at the same time seeking to assuage concerns expressed by some of the remaining 27 member states.
To be valid, the exit treaty must be backed by a "qualified majority" of at least 20 EU states accounting for 65 per cent of the EU population.
But the bloc is seeking unanimity since this would be needed for future trade deals once Britain leaves.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez demanded assurances that the future of the disputed British territory of Gibraltar would be settled through direct talks between Madrid and London.
His Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said yesterday: "We will not give our agreement until... we are assured that... the negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union will not include Gibraltar, that this would be a separate negotiation which Spain would need to agree on."
Many in Brussels thought Mr Sanchez was trying to score points with voters at home before a local election in the southern Andalusia region on Dec 2.
They said the issue could be solved by the leaders and warned Madrid not to push so far as to put the whole Brexit agreement at risk.
In addition, France has called for more guarantees on future access to Britain's fishing waters, which London wants to keep firmly under its control after Brexit.
Following Mrs May's talks with EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, EU envoys will meet to discuss the outline of future ties today.
The leaders' negotiators will then look at it again at a meeting scheduled for tomorrow, two days before the summit.