The big Brexit talks have kicked off in Brussels, with both sides sitting down for their first official discussions over the UK leaving the EU.
At stake is how to untangle over 44 years of a complex relationship that is enshrined in thousands of pages of legal texts. It will need to be resolved in less than two years, with the UK to exit the EU on March 2019 whether there is a deal or not, unless the 27 other member states decide to extend negotiations.
The talks began amid uncertainty on the UK government’s intentions after British voters appeared to reject its so-called hard Brexit manifesto in a snap election on 8 June, when the ruling Conservative Party lost its majority in parliament. Brexit Secretary David Davis however said that has not changed their negotiating position.
“Because the membership of the single market requires the four freedoms to be obeyed, we need to bring back to the UK control of our laws of our borders,” Davis told reporters.
“We will leave the single market and be seeking to set up a free trade arrangement and a customs agreement. Similarly we will be leaving the Customs Union.
“The same arguments apply, but also because that’s the only way we can develop our free trade arrangements with the rest of the world and that is a major up-side for Britain.”
On the EU side, there is a push for the rights of expatriate citizens and a new border, notably cutting across Ireland, to be prioritised in the talks.
“The UK will no longer have the same rights and the same advantages as the EU member states,” said Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator.
“However I am convinced that it is our common interest to establish a new partnership among the 27 and the UK. I’m convinced that this partnership will contribute to the enduring stability of our continent. We are united among the 27 and the institutions for these negotiations.”
Of course, there is also the matter of money to discuss. Britain’s facing a bill of tens of billions of euros before it leaves in 21 months’ time.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble have said the EU door “remains open” if the UK changed its mind on Brexit. But the British government has ruled this out.