Britain, EU to start historic Brexit talks
June 19 2017 12:07 PM
Bystanders gather outside the EU headquarters as Britain and EU launch Brexit talks in Brussels
Bystanders gather outside the EU headquarters as Britain and EU launch Brexit talks in Brussels


Britain starts formal talks to leave the EU on Monday, seeking a deal ‘like no other in history’ despite entering fiendishly difficult negotiations with a badly weakened government.

A year after Britain's seismic referendum, Brexit minister David Davis and the European Union's French chief negotiator Michel Barnier will meet at the European Commission in Brussels at around 0900 GMT.

At stake in hugely complex talks facing a March 2019 deadline is not just Britain's future but a western political order that would be badly shaken by a failure to reach a deal.

The situation is very different from 12 months ago when the Brexiteers were riding high, with Prime Minister Theresa May's entire approach called into question after a disastrous election performance on June 8.

‘While there is a long road ahead, our destination is clear -- a deep and special partnership between the UK and the EU. A deal like no other in history,’ Davis said in a statement as he headed into the talks.

‘I look forward to beginning work on that new future.’

British foreign minister Boris Johnson, like Davis a prominent backer of the leave campaign, also sounded an upbeat note.

‘I think the whole process will lead to a happy resolution which can be done with honour and profit to both sides,’ Johnson said as he went into an EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg.

There will be haggling over the terms, over money, but ‘the most important thing is to raise our eyes to the future ... and think about the deep and special partnership that we want to build with our friends,’ he said.

- Early capitulation -

Britain appears to have given in on the EU's insistence that talks first focus on three key divorce issues, before moving onto the future EU-UK relationship and a possible trade deal.

Those issues are Britain's exit bill, estimated by Brussels at around 100 billion euros ($112 billion), the rights of three million EU nationals living in Britain and one million Britons on the continent, and the status of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

‘Sitting down for a first formal negotiation round is something in and of itself,’ an EU source told AFP.

Talks will begin at 0900 GMT with a joint press conference by former French foreign minister and European commissioner Barnier and Davis at around 1630 GMT.

After the initial shock of last year's Brexit vote and faced with rising anti-EU sentiment, the bloc at 27 appears to have steadied in recent months and got a real boost with the election of new French President Emmanuel Macron in May.

Macron, a committed pro-EU leader and ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, easily won French legislative elections on Sunday, cementing his power base.

Worried by immigration and loss of sovereignty, Britain voted last year to end its four-decades-old membership of the 28-country bloc -- the first state ever to do so.

An increasingly concerned EU has been pushing London to hurry up, with time running out for a deal and three months already gone since May triggered the two-year Article 50 EU exit process.

Threats by Britain to walk away without a deal have worried European capitals.

Monday's talks however are likely to focus on the practical details of timings for the coming months, with the big, divisive issues left aside for now, officials said.

May herself will also have a chance to update the other 27 EU leaders on her Brexit plans at a summit in Brussels on Thursday.

‘The best way we can spend this week is to rebuild trust,’ rather than tackle the big difficult issues right at the start, another European source said.

- 'Cliff edge' warning -

Many in Brussels fear that London has no real strategy, with May under pressure at home, still trying to close a deal with a conservative Northern Ireland party to stay in power, and facing criticism for her handling of the aftermath of a devastating tower block fire.

May's government had developed a strategy of so-called ‘hard Brexit’: leaving the European single market and the customs union in order to control immigration from the EU.

But she lost her parliamentary majority in the June 8 polls, putting that policy and her own political future in doubt.

Finance minister Philip Hammond confirmed Sunday that it was still the plan to quit not only the EU but the customs union and single market as well.

But he warned that ‘we need to get there via a slope, not via a cliff edge’.

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