Brussels, June 19: Britain and the European Union began their first formal Brexit negotiations today, under pressure to seal a deal amid disarray in London over whether to go for a hard or soft divorce.
At stake is not just Britain’s future but also Europe’s post-war political order and its place in the world which could be fatally undermined without an agreement by the March 2019 deadline.
The EU’s chief negotiator, France’s Michel Barnier, welcomed his counterpart David Davis with a handshake and smiles for the press in the European Commission’s landmark headquarters in central Brussels flanked by the EU and British flags.
“Today we are launching negotiations on the orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU,” said Barnier, a former European commissioner and French foreign minister.
Their first task must be to “tackle the uncertainties caused by Brexit,” he said, citing the rights of EU citizens in Britain and the possible impact on the open border between Northern Ireland and the republic.
“I hope that today we can identify priorities and a timetable to allow me to report to (EU leaders) later this week (that) we had a constructive opening of negotiations.”
Davis, a prominent tough-talking figure in the “Leave” campaign, sounded a positive note too, saying “there is more that unites us than divides us.”
“In testing times like these we are reminded of the values and resolve we share with our closest allies in Europe,” he said, referring to the latest reported terror attack overnight in London and the loss of lives in forest fires in Portugal.
Davis said the talks would be carried out in “a positive and constructive tone,” with Britain looking to forge a “strong and special partnership for the future.”
Last year’s Brexit vote came as a profound shock to Brussels against a backdrop of rising anti-EU sentiment, with many — including now US President Donald Trump — predicting the bloc’s eventual break-up.
May officially triggered the two-year Brexit process in March when she was riding high in the opinion polls.
She then announced — despite having ruled it out repeatedly — that she would seek a fresh mandate to give her the authority to push through a Brexit deal, or even walk away without one if need be.
But instead she lost her parliamentary majority, putting that hard-line approach and her political future in doubt after the disastrous June 8 election.