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Brexit talks: what to expect on day one

The Financial Times logoThe Financial Times 18/06/2017 Alex Barker in Brussels
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Watch: May under pressure as Brexit talks begin (Bloomberg)

Britain and the EU embark on the first day of formal Brexit negotiations on Monday, aiming for a constructive, orderly launch that avoids a noisy clash on the big policy differences over Britain’s exit.

David Davis, Britain’s Brexit secretary, will see Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, in Brussels for the debut round of a complex negotiating process that is expected to stretch to November 2018 with ever increasing pace and intensity.

Mr Barnier has already made public the EU’s positions on Brexit withdrawal issues, including citizen rights and Britain’s financial obligations. But in a bid to avoid the opening of talks being marred by a dispute over policy, Mr Davis has pushed back plans to issue a “generous” offer on the 3m migrants resident in Britain for later in the month.

Watch: Soft Brexit 'very unlikely' (Bloomberg)

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No breakthroughs are expected on Monday, or indeed for some weeks and possibly months to come. The idea is for the EU and UK sides to meet, exchange views, plan practicalities and set agendas, all ahead of more detailed talks in coming weeks. “This is about building trust, nothing more,” said one senior EU diplomat. 

Related: Brexit bill - how much will the UK pay?

(FILES) A combination of file pictures created in London on June 15, 2017 shows (L-R) European Commission member in charge of Brexit negotiations with Britain, Michel Barnier at the general affairs council at the European Council in Brussels on May 22, 2017 and British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Brexit Minister) David Davis arriving to attend a weekly cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London on March 14, 2017. Britain and the European Union will start Brexit negotiations on Monday, while Prime Minister Theresa May nears a deal to prop up her minority government following her election fiasco. Brexit talks had been expected to begin in Brussels next week but May's loss of her parliamentary majority in a snap general election one week ago raised doubts about the date. / AFP PHOTO / Ben STANSALL AND Emmanuel DUNANDBEN STANSALL,EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images © AFP (FILES) A combination of file pictures created in London on June 15, 2017 shows (L-R) European Commission member in charge of Brexit negotiations with Britain, Michel Barnier at the general affairs council at the European Council in Brussels on May 22, 2017 and British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Brexit Minister) David Davis arriving to attend a weekly cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London on March 14, 2017. Britain and the European Union will start Brexit negotiations on Monday, while Prime Minister Theresa May nears a deal to prop up her minority government following her election fiasco. Brexit talks had been expected to begin in Brussels next week but May's loss of her parliamentary majority in a snap general election one week ago raised doubts about the date. / AFP PHOTO / Ben STANSALL AND Emmanuel DUNANDBEN STANSALL,EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, will follow through on the first one-day encounter with an explanation to EU leaders at a summit dinner on Thursday night about what Britain’s inconclusive election means for her exit plans.

While she will be listened to over coffee, diplomats are adamant the summit room will not be a forum for talks. As the EU treaties suggest, once she has spoken Mrs May will be escorted out of the room so the other 27 EU leaders can confer in private.

Illustration of brexit logo and calendar © Provided by Financial Times Illustration of brexit logo and calendar

British officials say they will be going into talks with their “head held high”.

But one of the most the telling aspects of the first exchanges appears to be a desire to avoid confrontation. 

Some in London had contemplated making a big offer on citizen rights this week, in an attempt to dramatically kick-start negotiations, with Mrs May trying to drive home a deal at the summit. With the election result, that plan was ditched.  

Mr Davis, too, promised the “row of the summer” would be over sequencing — the European Commission’s insistence that trade talks only start once Britain gives assurances on a gross Brexit bill of up to €100bn and settles questions over the rights of 4m migrants caught out by Brexit. 

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At least in this first encounter, Britain seems to be accepting it needs to discuss these issues, if not resolve them, before talks on a future relationship begin. It is unclear how long that will last. London’s view remains that it is impossible to handle what is outstanding from the past without referring to the future.

After a first session between officials on Monday, and lunch between Mr Barnier and Mr Davis, senior officials will break into the “working groups” for talks. These 4-6 mini-negotiations will do the technical heavy lifting on divorce: citizen rights, a financial settlement, outstanding legal issues, border questions such as Northern Ireland, and civil-nuclear matters. 

After taking stock at the end of the afternoon, Mr Barnier and Mr Davis will hold a press conference, formally marking the start of Brexit negotiations some 82 days after Britain’s Article 50 exit letter and just 500 days before Mr Barnier’s November 2018 deadline for an informal deal.

A senior EU diplomat described the decision postponing the offer on citizen rights as “wise”. “We have the same interest [for this week]: rebuilding trust and launching a constructive process. If we achieve that then it is already a success.”

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