EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and British Secretary of State David Davis at EU headquarters. (AP: Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
The European Union says after day one of talks on Britain’s exit from the 28-member bloc that the clock is ticking on negotiations, but British Brexit Minister David Davis says he is optimistic of a swift and good outcome.
- David Davis says Britain’s Brexit position has not changed despite UK election result
- EU chief negotiator says a fair deal possible for both sides
- Northern Ireland free border issue among key day one topics
The Brussels talks began almost a year after Britain unexpectedly voted in a referendum to leave the EU and less than two weeks after Prime Minister Theresa May lost her overall majority in snap elections that raised questions about the stability of the Government the EU faces.
“The clock is ticking,” EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier told a joint news conference with Mr Davis, adding that an orderly withdrawal was essential for both Britain and the EU.
A fair deal for both sides was possible, he said.
He quoted the founder of the trading bloc that later became the European Union, Jean Monnet, as saying: “I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I am determined.”
Mr Davis, taking up the historical theme, quoted British wartime leader Winston Churchill.
“The pessimist see difficulty in every opportunity, the optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty,” he said.
“And so bridging between Churchill and Monnet I am certainly a determined optimist.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May lost her Conservative majority in this month’s election. (AP: Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Mr Davis said Britain’s negotiating position had not changed as a result of his Conservative Party’s poor showing in recent elections.
Britain, he said, would seek to leave both the single market and the customs union and forge a separate trading agreement.
Both men said they had spent a great deal of time discussing the question of Northern Ireland where all parties seek to uphold the free border.
Mr Davis, a veteran campaigner against EU membership, said he sought quick and substantive progress in what is scheduled to be a two-year negotiation before Britain leaves the EU.
No mention of Britain’s big bill
Mr Barnier said after welcoming Mr Davis that it was important to tackle uncertainties caused by Brexit.
Those were, he said, the rights of expatriate citizens and problems of a new EU-UK border, notably cutting across Ireland.
He did not mention a third EU priority — that Britain settle a bill of tens of billions of euros before it leaves in 21 months.
That financial issue is already a bone of contention, as is Brussels’ refusal to discuss a new free trade deal until after it is resolved.
Ms May, whose future is uncertain after she lost her Conservative majority in an election this month, has insisted that trade talks start immediately and run in parallel.
While Mr Barnier insists on the “sequencing” of talks, so that trade negotiations cannot start until probably January, finding a way to avoid a “hard” customs border for troubled Northern Ireland may well involve some earlier discussion of the matter.
A bigger problem may be for British negotiators to resolve what trade relationship they want.
While “Brexiteers” like Mr Davis have strongly backed Ms May’s proposed clean break with the single market and customs union, Finance Minister Philip Hammond and others have this month echoed calls by businesses for less of a “hard Brexit” and retaining closer customs ties.