EU Wins First Battle Over Brexit as UK Retreats on Timing – Bloomberg
Almost a year after British voters took the decision to leave the bloc, Brexit Secretary David Davis and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier held their first 7 hours of discussions in the European Commission’s headquarters in Brussels on Monday.
Both sides agreed at the outset of the talks, which could stretch to 21 months, that they would work for an early deal to end the uncertainty for an estimated 4.5 million citizens whose future employment rights and residency status are in the balance as a result of the U.K.’s departure from the EU.
“For both the EU and the U.K. a fair deal is possible and far better than no deal,” Barnier said in a joint press conference with Davis. “That is why we will work all the time with the U.K. and never against the U.K. — there will be no hostility on my side.”
The first day of Brexit talks between Davis and Barnier marked the end of the beginning of what both sides expect to be a complicated and confrontational process. The clock is ticking down to midnight on March 29, 2019, when the U.K. will leave the EU, with or without a deal.
Barnier and Davis already know each other well. They both served as Europe ministers — for France and Britain, respectively — at the same time during the 1990s. They were keen to present a cordial and friendly image to the world at their first negotiating session in Brussels. Both are keen hikers and they exchanged presents reflecting their shared interest.
Davis gave Barnier an original, French-language account of an expedition to the Himalayas, while Barnier reciprocated with a traditional walking stick from his home region of Savoie. After a private one-on-one meeting, the pair went to lunch with four senior officials, dining on Belgian asparagus, red mullet and meringue cake with strawberries.
When they arrived at the European Commission’s headquarters on Monday morning, Barnier began by expressing his “deep sympathies” for the British people after a series of tragic events, including last week’s Grenfell tower fire, and a suspected terrorist attack outside a London mosque overnight.
100 Billion-Euro Bill
Despite emphasizing their shared values, the two sides remain as far apart as ever on critical issues that the next 500 days will need to resolve if Britain is to avoid leaving the EU without a deal.
The U.K. insists the negotiations must discuss the future trading relationship alongside the terms of Britain’s divorce, while Davis has previously warned he will not contemplate paying the mooted 100 billion-euro ($112 billion) exit charge EU officials are said to be contemplating.
Prospects for speedy progress seem to have receded since the British election earlier this month. The negotiations began against a backdrop of turmoil in the U.K. after Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to call an early vote to strengthen her position went spectacularly wrong, leaving her without a majority in Parliament.
May’s Tories are now stuck in talks with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party in an effort to reach a deal in which the smaller group will support her in key votes to keep the Tories in power.
Conservative Battle Lines
The premier faced criticism for her handling of the devastating fire that is believed to have claimed 79 lives in London last week, while rivals for the party leadership are said to be weighing bids to topple her.
May’s weakness opened a new battle within the Conservative Party over the kind of Brexit the government should seek. Some of her ministers want to refashion her strategy toward protecting trade with Britain’s biggest market rather than continuing to aim for her original goal of winning control of immigration and law-making.
May has yet to change tack formally and doing so would risk infuriating euroskeptic Conservatives who might still prove strong enough to scupper a deal or to oust her as leader if they believe she’s backsliding.