Brexit negotiations are finally underway in Brussels, with the UK seeking a ‘new, deep and special partnership’ with the EU.
Brexit Secretary David Davis and the European Commission’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier met for lunch, marking the start of the talks by exchanging gifts related to their shared love of mountaineering.
Davis, a veteran Eurosceptic, told Barnier that his team aimed to maintain a ‘positive and constructive tone’ during the talks.
Meanwhile Barnier, a former French minister, insisted the talks must first address the ‘uncertainties’ caused by Brexit.
He said these are the rights of EU citizens living elsewhere in Europe and the problems of a EU-UK border, particularly in the context of Ireland.
But he didn’t mention the EU’s third objective – for Britain to settle a bill of tens of billions of euros.
Brussels has vowed it will not begin trade talks until it is paid – but Theresa May has said they must start immediately and occur at the same time.
Davis, touching on shared security threats, said: “There is more that unites us than divides us.
“We are … determined to build a strong and special partnership between ourselves, our European allies and friends.”
EU diplomats hope this first meeting, and a Brussels summit on Thursday and Friday where Theresa May will meet fellow EU leaders, will improve the mood after some spiky exchanges.
And Davis’s agreement to today’s agenda led some EU officials to believe the UK government may finally be prepared to co-operate on the running of negotiations.
Barnier has said a divorce deal should be ready by October next year to give time for parliamentary approval – while EU leaders want Theresa May to lay off threatening to walk out and leave a chaotic legal limbo in her wake.
However, EU leaders are also said to be determined not to allow concessions to Britain that might encourage others to quit.