By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union negotiators met on Friday to try to clear the last hurdle before Sunday's summit to endorse the Brexit deal, but Spain's eleventh-hour objection over Gibraltar means the final text could not be ready until the last minute.
Four months before Britain leaves the EU, the legal divorce treaty and an accompanying political declaration on future ties are ready to be rubber-stamped by British Prime Minister Theresa May and the leaders of the 27 countries remaining in the EU after Brexit.
Spain has asked for changes to the withdrawal treaty and the declaration on a new EU-UK relationship to make clear any decisions about the disputed British overseas territory of Gibraltar would only be taken in direct talks with Madrid.
"We've worked very hard and have in fact reached agreement with Spanish colleagues in respect of Gibraltar's role in the withdrawal process," Gibraltar's Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said on Friday.
"If (the withdrawal agreement is) opened for one comma or one full-stop on Gibraltar, it's going to be re-opened on any of the other issues."
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Thursday Spain would be against the draft deal on Britain's exit from the European Union if there are no changes.
"After my conversation with Theresa May, our positions remain far away. My government will always defend the interests of Spain. If there are no changes, we will veto Brexit," he said.
Under EU rules, the withdrawal treaty is adopted by a majority and not unanimity, so a single state cannot block it. However, EU leaders want unity on this most politically sensitive matter.
OPPOSITION IN PARLIAMENT
The Brexit package faces vehement opposition in the British parliament, which must vote in favour for it to take effect. Otherwise Britain risks leaving the bloc on March 29, 2019, without an agreement to mitigate economic disruption.
Determined not to allow any redrafting of either of the two texts and risk derailing the process, EU states have instead proposed addressing Spain's concerns in a separate statement by the 27 leaders on Sunday that would not be part of negotiations with Britain.
It could refer back to the EU's 2017 Brexit negotiating mandate, which said: "After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom."
The national leaders' EU negotiators, or 'sherpas', were meeting on Friday in Brussels. May will arrive for talks with the head of the EU's executive, Jean-Claude Juncker, on Saturday.
EU diplomats hope a text could be agreed by late Friday but fear Sanchez will want to discuss it at the top level on Sunday to show determination and score points with voters at home ahead of a December regional election.
The Brexit deal covers financial settlement, expatriates' rights and the Irish border, as well as setting a blueprint for future trade and security ties. It must also be backed by the European Parliament to come into force.
(Additional reporting by Alistair Smout in London; Editing by Janet Lawrence)