Brexit negotiations get off to good start

EU and UK agree on structure, timeline and priorities for March 29th, 2019, deadline

United Kingdom secretary of state for exiting the European Union David Davis is welcomed by Michel Barnier, the European chief negotiator of the Task Force for the Preparation and Conduct of the Negotiations with the United Kingdom. Photograph: Stephanie Lecocq

United Kingdom secretary of state for exiting the European Union David Davis is welcomed by Michel Barnier, the European chief negotiator of the Task Force for the Preparation and Conduct of the Negotiations with the United Kingdom. Photograph: Stephanie Lecocq


Some 500 days from now it is supposed to be all over.

Deal or no deal, the UK will leave the EU on March 29th, 2019.

But, although likely to be a bumpy road, Monday’s Brexit negotiations opened harmoniously, “on the right foot”, as Michel Barnier the EU chief negotiator put it, in the commission’s headquarters in the Berlaymont – almost a year to the day after the UK’s dramatic vote to leave.

The two sides agreed on the structure of the negotiations, dates and the priorities for the talks which will be conducted by Mr Barnier and the UK Brexit secretary David Davis. They will be assisted by two technical working groups, on citizens’ rights, and a UK financial settlement – and a “dialogue” on Ireland and the Border issues.

The dialogue will be managed by Mr Barnier’s deputy Sabine Weyand, and Olly Robbins, the permanent secretary at the department for exiting the EU. The appointment of both senior officials to the Irish portfolio was a measure of how centrally the sides saw the issue, according to Mr Davis and Mr Barnier.

They denied strongly that Ireland had been sidelined and said it had been the issue which consumed most of their time on Monday and was technically most difficult. That meant, Mr Davis said, that issues surrounding trade in Ireland might not be concluded until the end of talks. But Ireland, he said, “is right at the top of priorities”.

Upbeat atmosphere

Mr Barnier said the immediate priority was our “determination to preserve in all its dimensions the Good Friday Agreement” and maintaining the Common Travel Area. Both men were remorselessly upbeat about the talks, describing them as very positive and useful, with Mr Davis repeatedly describing the process in terms of building a new relationship between the UK and its friends and allies, and hardly mentioning the word withdrawal. He said they have produced “an ambitious but eminently achievable timetable”.

Mr Barnier insisted, in a dig at UK prime minister Theresa May, that for both sides “a fair deal is possible and far better than no deal”.

He promised to “work with the UK, not against the UK”.

The priority, he said, was to end the uncertainty faced by citizens – 3.5 million EU nationals in the UK and 1.2 million Britons on the continent – in the aftermath of Brexit.

Mr Davis, who said the UK position on citizens rights would be elaborated by Ms May at Thursday’s summit, said an agreement on the issue should be relatively straightforward.

The meeting confirmed the EU’s position that talks on the “future relationship”, notably trade, would open only if “sufficient progress” was made in the priority issues, citizens rights, the financial settlement – the British Brexit bill, and the Irish Border.

The EU leaders would discuss progress at their October meeting. The negotiators will meet for a week each month with continued dialogue in between.

Citizens’ rights

On trade, Mr Davis insisted the UK had not changed its position in the wake of the election – it would be leaving the single market and the customs union.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s co-ordinator on Brexit, welcomed the British decision not to contest the EU’s negotiating timetable. “I am glad that we are sticking to the negotiating timetable, which is already quite tight,” Mr Verhofstadt said. “Let’s now, first of all, make progress in the field of citizens’ rights and create legal certainty for both our people and our companies.”

The two negotiators, who are certainly going to get to know each other well over the next two years, exchanged gifts to mark the occasion that reflected their mutual love of walking and mountaineering – Mr Barnier spent the weekend ahead of the meeting hiking in Savoie and brought his counterpart a fine, local, hand-carved walking stick.

Mr Davis returned the favour with a signed copy of Regards vers l’Annapurna. Written by Marcel Ichac, it is a striking account of an epic French expedition to the Himalayas in 1950.

Mountaineering and its peril have already featured in the EU-UK exchanges, with Mr Barnier last month advising Ms May on the dangers of Brexit after discovering they too share a passion for hill-walking. “If you like walking in the mountains,” he said, “you have to learn a certain number of rules. You have to learn to put one foot in front of the other, because sometimes you are on a steep and rocky path. You also have to look at what accidents might befall you, falling rocks. You have to be very careful to keep your breath, you have to have stamina because it could be a lengthy path. And you have to keep looking at the summit, the outcome. That’s what I learned when mountain-walking.”

And the commission provided lunch: Belgian asparagus (from Malines) with vinaigrette, red mullet with vegetables and fondant potatoes, vacherin (meringue cake) with wild strawberries.

It was followed by mocha coffee and cakes.