Brexit talks start with smiles, focus on tough issues

UK negotiator David Davis came to Brussels to prepare for negotiations with Michel Barnier, the EU's Brexit chief., on 19 June 2017. [European Commission]

The historic talks on how the United Kingdom and the EU will go separate ways in 2019 kicked off on Monday (19 June) with the two sides agreeing on a timetable, structure and priorities.

The chief negotiators, Michael Barnier for the EU and David Davids for the UK, struck few dissonant chords and exchanged light banter during a press conference held after six hours of talks, which they described as constructive and aimed at ensuring a fair deal for both sides.

But they gave no indication as to how the key issues might be resolved, except for repeating that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.

“Today marks the start of a journey for the UK and the EU. We have a long way to go but we’re off to a promising start,” said Davis, the UK’s Secretary of State for Brexit.

“It was very important and useful to start off on the right foot as the clock is ticking,” said Barnier.

“Today we agreed on dates, on organisation and on priorities for the negotiation.”

As was announced earlier, the first phase of the talks, during which the negotiators will be meeting for one week every month, will focus on the rights of EU and UK citizens living abroad, the financial bill the UK will have to settle and the bloc’s new external border in Northern Ireland. The talks should be completed by April 2019, but could be extended if all 27 EU countries agree.

During the complex talks, the two sides will have to negotiate a new customs and trade regime between the single market and the UK. But the border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland quickly became a paramount concern after the June 2016 referendum.

After failing to secure a parliamentary majority in a national election last week, UK’s Prime Minister Theresa May’s conservatives are in coalition talks with a small, far-right, protestant Northern Irish party, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Observers have voiced concern that such an alliance might jeopardise the peace deal in Northern Ireland, which calls for a soft border with Ireland and the neutrality of London and Dublin in all matters related to the province.

“Northern Ireland is very complex and sensitive and we take it extremely seriously,” Davis said.

“But it has nothing to do with the negotiations in the House of Commons,” he said in reference to the ongoing government-forming talks in London.

In a brief appearance before beginning talks with Barnier, Davis said, “There is more that unites us than divides us”.

The two negotiators made an effort to appear coordinated–but not unified. Their remarks included made a small, symbolic reference to differences between the two sides.

“I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I am determined,” Barnier said, quoting EU founding father Jean Monnet in French.

“We are determined,” he added in English.

Davis joked that he and Barnier had coordinated the quotes they cited during the joint press conference.

Quoting Winston Churchill, Davis told journalists, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. I am certainly a determined optimist.”

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