ALGECIRAS, SPAIN - A centuries old quarrel between Britain and Spain over the British colony Gibraltar threatens to throw a wrench into the works of the much-anticipated Brexit deal with the European Union that will be voted on at a meeting of the European Commission Sunday.
Spain's prime minister and his top diplomats denounced the final Brexit draft agreement for ignoring Madrid's role in deciding the territory's status.
Gibraltar's Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, announced on the BBC network that a settlement had been reached on Friday when he rushed to Madrid for talks with Spanish officials.
But Spain's foreign ministry said that Picardo was referring to technical negotiations on tax and border issues and that central disagreements were far from resolved.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Friday from Cuba where he was on an official visit, that positions with London remained "distant" and that he would use Spain's vote in the EU commission to veto any Brexit deal that did not specifically recognize Spain as Britain's main interlocutor in any negotiations on Gibraltar's future.
Senior Spanish diplomat, LuIs Aguiriano, accused the EU on Spanish national television of going behind Spain's back to "nocturnally" insert a clause in the Brexit draft agreement stipulating that Gibraltar's affairs would be handled between Britain and the EU as a last-minute concession to London.
Aguiriano described a midnight telephone call that Sanchez placed to British Prime Minister Teresa May, insisting that Britain modify the Brexit agreement's contentious article 184 that treated Gibraltar in same the context as Britain's other land border with the EU in Northern Ireland.
Former Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Garcia Maragallo accused chief EU negotiator Paul Gautier of "failing to represent the interests of EU members," saying EU officials had given Spain assurances over Gibraltar when Brexit negotiations started.
But British Prime Minister May gave her answer to Sanchez by going before parliament on Thursday to affirm that that she had made it "absolutely clear that British sovereignty over Gibraltar would be protected."
To some it brought back memories of the 1981 Falklands war when then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher whipped up patriotic fervor for her embattled conservative government by standing up to Argentina's invasion of another British colony.
Few expect Britain and Spain to go to war. But it's hardly the first time that tensions simmered to the boiling point since former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco closed the narrow land border connecting the massive rock peninsula with Spain's mainland in the 1940s.
It was reopened when Spain joined the EU and NATO under democratic governments that succeeded Franco following his death in 1975. But quarrels over fishing rights, smuggling, tax evasion and other frontier issues have led to repeated episodes in which Spain has flexed its muscles by tightening border controls.
This has threatened Gibraltar's vulnerable economy which is largely dependent on cross-border tourism.
Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht which ended the War of the Spanish Succession when both nations were imperial powers. The British turned it into a strategic naval base controlling the Atlantic entrance to the Mediterranean and populated the barren rock with migrant labor from other nearby possessions, including Malta, Cyprus, as well as some north Africans and southern Spanish Andalusians.
Gibraltar's 32,000 inhabitants voted to remain British by a majority of 99% in a 2002 referendum. But they also voted against Brexit by 95%, for fear of the possible consequences of a hard border, according to Jonathan Sacramento, news director at Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation, Gibraltar's public service broadcaster.
A Spanish official who managed relations with Gibraltar told VOA that hard border provisions imposed by Brexit would enhance Spain's leverage on the Gibraltarians.
But Gibraltar also has powerful economic cards to play. Over 10,000 Spanish workers cross the border each day for well-paying jobs in the British colony and a closed border could prove economically disastrous to the region of Andalusia, which suffers chronically high unemployment.
Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Spain's hard-left United We Can party, which provides key support to Sanchez's minority government, said on Friday that his concern was for the job security of workers who could be affected in a new conflict over the British territory and not "patriotic posturing."