Brexit negotiations which could define the UK’s political and economic future have begun, with David Davis calling for a “new deep and special partnership” between Britain and Brussels. The Brexit Secretary acknowledged there would be “challenging times ahead” as he met the European Commission’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier for the formal start of the talks.
He vowed to seek “a deal that works in the best interests of all citizens” with Mr Barnier as the pair began their discussions at the commission’s Berlaymont headquarters in the Belgian capital. Mr Barnier made clear that Brussels intends to stick to its timetable of dealing with the terms of Britain’s “orderly” withdrawal before moving on to discussing future trade relations.
“Our objective is clear. We must first tackle the uncertainties caused by Brexit, first for citizens but also for the beneficiaries of EU policies and for the impact on borders, in particular Ireland,” he said. He said he hoped that during their single day of talks, he and Mr Davis would be able to identify priorities and a timetable, so that he can report back to leaders of the other 27 EU states at the European Council summit in Brussels on Thursday that there had been a “constructive opening of negotiations”.
Mr Davis – who earlier said that he was hoping to negotiate a “deal like no other in history” – said the bonds between the UK and EU would continue after Brexit. Monday morning’s terror attack in London and the devastating fires in Portugal reminded him that “there is more that unites us than divides us”.
He said: “It is at testing times like these that we are reminded of the values and the resolve that we share with our closest allies in Europe. There is more that unites us than divides us. “While there will undoubtedly be challenging times ahead of us in the negotiations we will do all that we can to ensure that we deliver a deal that works in the best interests of all citizens.”
The talks expected to stretch for around 16-18 months ahead of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU in 2019.
Mr Barnier’s insistence on sticking to the EU’s priorities for the negotiations comes after Mr Davis appeared to soften his stance on the schedule for the talks.
Before the General Election, ministers had insisted that talks on a future trading relationship must take place in parallel with the negotiations on the divorce from Brussels, with Mr Davis warning in May that it would be the “row of the summer”.
But a week ago Mr Davis said “we will start down this process but I will have some discussions with Mr Barnier about how we progress” to trade talks. Officials have made clear that the Government still wants to negotiate its future trade relationship with the EU alongside talks on the terms for Brexit.
A spokesman for the Department for Exiting the European Union said: “We believe that the withdrawal process cannot be concluded without the future relationship also being taken into account.” The talks in Brussels consist of an opening session with both Mr Davis and Mr Barnier each joined by a large team of officials.
The Brexit Secretary and Mr Barnier will then have a short private meeting without any officials before a working dinner with just their key advisers.
Brexit department mandarin Olly Robbins and the UK’s ambassador to the EU, Sir Tim Barrow, will join Mr Davis for the lunch session. Working groups will discuss aspects of the negotiations in the afternoon before a final meeting between Mr Davis and Mr Barnier.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, in Luxembourg for a meeting with EU counterparts, said the process would lead to a “happy resolution that can be done with profit and with honour for both sides”. He said it was time to “raise our eyes to the horizon” adding that “in the long run, this will be good for the UK and good for the rest of Europe”.