Brexit talks begin with UK in disarray

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Brexit talks are officially underway.

Officials charged with negotiating the first departure of a country from the European Union were in Brussels on Monday to kick off the most consequential series of talks for the U.K. since the end of World War II.

Chief U.K. negotiator David Davis is meeting his EU counterpart, former French foreign minister Michel Barnier, to grapple with a complex set of questions about the future of trade and migration, how much the country must pay to settle its bill with the bloc, and the rights of millions of citizens who have settled in Britain or Europe.

Davis said he hopes to agree “a deal like no other in history.”

“While there is a long road ahead, our destination is clear — a deep and special partnership between the U.K. and the EU,” he said in a statement.

Davis and Barnier will hold a press conference later on Monday. The two sides are expected to meet monthly until March 2019, when Brexit is due to happen.

A year has passed since voters chose to pull the U.K. out of the EU, its most important export market. And nearly three months have ticked away since Prime Minister Theresa May started the two-year countdown to departure.

The EU has made its opening position clear. Yet Davis enters the talks representing a government in disarray.

A general election wiped out May’s parliamentary majority earlier this month and her position has been weakened further in the wake of a deadly fire in a London apartment building. The prime minister is still trying to secure the support of a fringe party whose votes she needs to form a government.

May’s hardline EU exit strategy is also being increasingly called into question.

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May had promised to take Britain completely out of the bloc’s common trading area and slash the number of people coming from the EU. She even threatened to walk away from Europe without paying a hefty divorce bill or striking a new trade deal, under the mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”

But the business community and many lawmakers want to retain closer ties with Europe, and they are heaping pressure on the prime minister to change her approach. One key figure calling for more emphasis on the economy is U.K. Treasury chief Philip Hammond.

“My clear view — and I believe the view of the majority of people in Britain — is that we should prioritize protecting jobs, protecting economic growth and protecting prosperity as we enter those negotiations and take them forward,” he said last week.

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A coalition of influential business groups echoed that sentiment on Monday, saying that the government should “put the economy first” in the Brexit talks. The group said any deal should minimize trade barriers and include a flexible immigration system.

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David Davis and Michel Barnier met Monday in Brussels.

A poll published over the weekend shows that a slim majority of Britons now want the chance to vote on the terms of Brexit when the talks are concluded.

Economic data is beginning to lend extra weight to the argument for a softer approach to Brexit.

Consumers, hammered by rising prices and stagnant wages, have snapped their wallets shut in recent months. Political turmoil has caused business leaders to put investments on hold.

The storm clouds began to gather in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, when investors quickly sent the pound to its lowest level in decades over fears that Britain would lose preferential access to Europe’s vast markets.

Investors are worried that Britain could crash out of the EU without an exit agreement in place, an outcome that would mean steep new barriers to trade.

“No deal would be a very, very bad outcome for Britain,” Hammond said Sunday.

— Ivana Kottasova contributed reporting.

CNNMoney (London) First published June 19, 2017: 5:52 AM ET



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