‘Brexit’ talks officially begin
Meeting in Brussels, lead British negotiator rejects suggestions by EU officials that the country could remain.
BRUSSELS — Amid deep uncertainty over the future relationship between Britain and the European Union, negotiators from both sides did their best to put a positive spin on the first official day of divorce talks.
“There is more that unites us than divides us,” Britain’s top negotiator, David Davis, told reporters Monday before the start of seven hours of discussions.
At one point, officials took a break to pose for photos holding gifts. The top EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, a former foreign minister of France, gave Davis a walking stick from his home region in the Alps. Davis gave Barnier a book about hiking.
The talks will address a number of issues, including how much money Britain will owe the union, the rights of British citizens in the EU and EU citizens in Britain, and how to minimize the effects of the split on the fragile peace between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Unless all of the leaders of all the EU countries agree to an extension, Britain is required to leave the union by March 2019. The talks are scheduled to take place for one week each month until an agreement is reached.
“It was very important and useful to start off on the right foot as the clock is ticking,” Barnier said Monday after the talks, held at the European Commission’s headquarters in Brussels.
It’s been nearly a year since British voters opted to break away from the EU in the referendum known as Brexit and nearly three months since Prime Minister Theresa May formally launched the separation process.
She had hoped to strengthen her government’s hand in the negotiations by holding a snap election this month and solidifying the hold of her Conservative Party on Parliament. But the move backfired, as the party lost its majority and is now trying to form a governing coalition with the right-wing Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party.
May has pushed for a “hard Brexit” in which existing agreements over trade and free movement of people would be renegotiated. But her political weakening has prompted speculation that she will be forced to bend to demands for a “soft Brexit.”
“The number of options where all of this can lead has become much bigger than it was before,” said Guntram Wolff, director of the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel. “There is more political fragility, but the 27 European countries certainty don’t want to end up in a sort of long-term relationship that would be one of animosity with the United Kingdom.”
He and others have also raised the possibility that Britain could remain in the EU.
Since the British election, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel have said they would welcome Britain back if it reversed its decision.
“I can’t say whether there is a chance of that happening,” Gabriel said Monday at a meeting of EU foreign ministers. “But we are definitely ready for it because Europe is weaker without the British, but I think the British would also be weaker without us Europeans.”
But Davis told reporters Monday that he flatly rejected those offers.
He also stuck to May’s position that Britain will pursue a completely new trade agreement with the union.
May’s government has said it wants that accord in place when the country separates in two years. Currently, nearly half of its exports go to EU countries.
Stupp is a special correspondent.