BRUSSELS (Reuters) - British and European Union envoys on Monday began a first round of negotiations on Britain’s divorce from the EU, with both sides saying it was high time to tackle details, though feuding within the London Cabinet over Brexit terms may trouble the process.
With little more than a year to decide the terms before Britain leaves, deal or no deal, on March 30, 2019, the 27 other EU national leaders want British Prime Minister Theresa May to rally her polarized nation – and her fractious Cabinet – swiftly behind a clear, detailed Brexit plan.
EU leaders are keen to minimize economic and social disruption across Europe as its second biggest economy cuts loose from the continent after four decades of myriad links.
Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier will press U.K. Brexit Secretary David Davis to agree to Britain covering substantial, existing British financial commitments and offer more detail on Britain’s approach, clouded by infighting within May’s Cabinet.
“We made a good start last month but … we are now getting into the substance of the matter,” Davis told reporters as he was welcomed at the European Commission in Brussels by Barnier, a little more than a year after Britons voted by a narrow majority to leave the EU.
Davis and Barnier shook hands for the cameras at the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters before a first full session of a scheduled four days of talks.
“We will now delve into the heart of the matter. We need to examine and compare our respective positions in order to make good progress,” Barnier told reporters.
Davis said it was “incredibly important” to make progress, “that we negotiate through this and identify the differences so that we can deal with them and identify the similarities so that we can reinforce them.”
“Now it’s time to get down to work and make this a successful negotiation,” he said before Davis and Barnier headed off for talks.
Both men declined further comment, with Barnier saying they would brief the media on Thursday after their teams have spent four days tackling a range of priority issues.
After a June snap election in which May’s Conservatives lost their majority, her Cabinet appears bitterly divided over the type of outcome it wants from the Brexit talks. Finance Minister Philip Hammond has emerged as the champion of a “soft Brexit,” prioritizing trade ties with the EU over curbing immigration.
He said he came under attack at the weekend from hardline Brexiteers “who are not happy with [my] agenda” after a series of Cabinet leaks intended to undermine him.
But he suggested that his view that Britain would require a gradual transition toward Brexit aimed at limiting the damage for business and jobs was now gaining traction in May’s government.
Barnier, who secured Davis’s consent last month to the EU’s broad structure for talks, wants to hold the Englishman publicly to whatever else has been agreed during the week, EU officials say.
Working groups will focus on three areas: citizens’ rights; the EU demand that Britain pay some €60 billion ($69 billion) to cover ongoing EU budget commitments; and other loose ends, such as what happens to British goods in EU shops on Brexit Day.
Davis’s office described an offer made by Britain last month on citizens’ rights as “fair and serious.” But Barnier has dismissed it as falling short of the EU demand that its three million citizens in Britain keep all their existing rights for life and have recourse to the EU courts to enforce those rights even after Britain has left.
A fourth set of talks, run by Davis’s and Barnier’s deputies, Oliver Robbins and Sabine Weyand, will focus on curbing problems in Northern Ireland once a new EU land border separates the British province from EU member Ireland to the south. Some of that will have to wait for clarity on future trade relations.
One key early advance that EU officials hope for this week is for Britain to stop challenging the principle that it will owe Brussels money – though how much will have to be argued over and cannot be calculated until Britain actually leaves.
Three more weeks of talks, interspersed with internal EU sessions to coordinate the views of the 27 other governments, are scheduled, from late August until early October. At that point, Barnier hopes to be able to show “significant progress” on the divorce priorities for EU leaders to give him a mandate to launch negotiations on a future free trade agreement.
Sec. Davis and PM May had pressed over the past months for trade talks to start immediately but accepted the EU’s sequence for negotiations last month. However, Brussels accepts that details on the divorce terms will still be open when trade talks begin.
In a sign British ministers are coming round to the EU view that a trade deal can at best be sketched in outline over the next 20 months, two members of PM May’s Cabinet who were on opposing sides of the Brexit referendum debate both said they expected some transitional phase to start in 2019 to smooth the passage from full EU membership to a final free-trade pact.