‘Brexit’ talks of­fi­cially be­gin

Meet­ing in Brus­sels, lead Bri­tish ne­go­tia­tor re­jects sug­ges­tions by EU of­fi­cials that the coun­try could re­main.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Catherine Stupp

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.

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