U.K., EU begin Brexit talks

Britain’s Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Brexit Minister) David Davis and European Commission member in charge of Brexit negotiations with Britain, Michel Barnier shake hands at the European Commission in Brussels, as Britain starts formal talks to leave the EU | John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

David Davis and Michel Barnier get historic negotiations under way in Brussels.

The European Union and the United Kingdom opened historic negotiations on Monday aimed at charting an orderly end to Britain’s more than 40-year membership of the bloc — the first-ever departure of an EU member country.

The talks, at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, kicked off just shy of a year after the “Brexit” referendum, in which U.K. voters, by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin, chose to leave the EU, and nearly three months after U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May sent a letter formally triggering the withdrawal process.

The two negotiating teams are led by Michel Barnier for the remaining members of the EU and by Brexit minister David Davis for the U.K. side.

According to the EU treaties, the two sides have until March 29, 2019, to reach an accord on an array of deeply complex issues, including citizens’ rights, the U.K.’s financial obligations to the EU, and border and customs controls. The U.K. is also pushing to simultaneously negotiate a new partnership anchored by a sweeping free trade accord.

Arriving Monday morning at the Berlaymont, Barnier offered his condolences to the U.K. over the latest terror attack, and to Portugal over the fatalities in recent forest fires.

“My very first words are to express my deep sympathies to the British people as you face tragic events, just as I want to express our solidarity to the Portuguese people,” Barnier said, before turning to welcome his British counterpart.

“Welcome, David,” Barnier continued. “Today, we are launching the negotiations and orderly withdrawal of the U.K. from the EU. Our objective is clear. We must first tackle the uncertainties caused by Brexit, first for citizens but also for the beneficiaries of the EU policies, and for the impact on borders, in particular Ireland. I hope that today we can identify priorities and a timetable that would allow me to report to the European Council later this week that we had a constructive opening of negotiations.”

Davis, in turn, thanked Barnier and offered similar condolences to the victims in London and Portugal. Then, turning to Brexit, Davis again emphasized his focus on the future relationship rather than the divorce terms, a view that has left EU officials complaining that the U.K. is getting ahead of itself.

Davis did, however, try to couch his goals in conciliatory language.

“It’s at testing times like these that we are reminded of the values and the resolve that we share with our closest allies in Europe,” he said. “There is more that unites us than divides us.”

Davis added that the U.K. wanted a deal good for both sides. “To that end,” he said, “we are starting this negotiation in a positive and constructive tone determined to build a strong and special partnership between ourselves  and our European allies and friends for the future.”

Maïa de la Baume contributed reporting. 

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