EU opens next phase of Brexit, warns of tough talks ahead

Team Udayavani, Dec 16, 2017, 10:37 AM IST

Brussels: European Union leaders agreed today to open crucial talks on a future relationship with Britain but warned they would be even tougher than the first tortuous phase of negotiations.

EU President Donald Tusk said the bloc would open “exploratory contacts” with London after European leaders endorsed an interim deal on the terms of Britain’s divorce, and approved the next stage of discussions.

However, they agreed that while talks will begin in January on a post-Brexit transition period of around two years, actual negotiations on future trade ties would not start until March.

“It is now time for internal EU 27 preparations and exploratory contacts with the UK to get more clarity on their vision,” Tusk told reporters at the end of the summit. He congratulated British Prime Minister Theresa May — who had left the summit late yesterday — on the deal, and in return she offered her thanks to him and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

“Today is an important step on the road to delivering a smooth and orderly Brexit and forging our deep and special future partnership,” May tweeted.

As he arrived for the meeting on Friday, Juncker — who sealed the deal with May on December 8 after tense all-night talks — said the British premier had made “big efforts”. But he warned the next stage “would be much harder than the first phase, and the first phase was very hard”.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed his comments, saying that while progress had been made, the negotiations ahead would be “even tougher”. She had earlier warned that “there remain many issues to be solved and we don’t have much time”.

Britain voted to leave the EU in a referendum in June 2016 and is due to end its four-decade membership on March 29, 2019.

After months of difficult talks, May and Juncker agreed on a deal on the key divorce issues of Britain’s exit bill, the future of the Irish border and expatriate rights.

At a meeting without the British premier on Friday, the other EU leaders formally approved negotiating guidelines saying there had been “sufficient progress” and that the second phase could begin.

May had yesterday addressed her counterparts over dinner and was “clear about wanting to move onto trade talks as quickly as possible” with “ambition and creativity”, a British official said. Leaders said there had been polite applause for May, who came to the summit hours after a humiliating parliamentary defeat over her Brexit plans.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said May, who has struggled to assert her authority since a disastrous snap election in June, was “a tough leader in the interest of Britain”.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said she was a “formidable political operator” but that it was “crucial” she sets out Britain’s wish list for long-term ties.

The EU guidelines stress that it is not possible to sign a formal trade deal until after Britain had left the bloc, and officials warned it could take years to do so. Options for a future relationship include following the model of a recent EU-Canada trade deal, or Norway’s membership of the European Economic Area.

British officials are hoping for a deal by March on a two -year transition out of the bloc, during which their relationship would largely stay the same.

Questions still linger however over the divorce agreement, after Brexit minister David Davis appeared to suggest it was not legally enforceable and that Britain would only pay its exit bill if it got a trade deal. There are particular concerns about the guarantee made by London — at Dublin’s request — that there will be no frontier checks between Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.

“Even a primary school student will realise there is a problem to solve with the Irish border,” said Austria’s Chancellor Christian Kern.

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