After months of posturing, the first day of historic negotiations about Britain's withdrawal from the European Union ended with the UK agreeing to follow a timetable set down by the other 27 member states.
Brexit secretary David Davis had raised expectations of a huge dispute about the structure of the complicated talks, saying it would be the "row of the summer".
However, at a joint press conference at the end of the first day of formal discussions in Brussels, Davis and his counterpart Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, said the parties would follow the EU's preferred sequencing – not that proposed by the UK.
There had been heated rhetoric on both sides in the months leading up to the negotiations. However, at the end of the first day both were keen to portray the discussions in a positive light.
Davis said he was “encouraged by the constructive approach”. Barnier said he believed a “fair deal is possible and far better than no deal”.
There would be no “hostility” toward the UK from his team, the EU’s chief negotiator added.
The two sides signed up to terms of reference for the negotiations that confirm that the talks will be phased, rather than negotiating everything at once. Until recently the UK had insisted withdrawal talks should run alongside negotiations about the future, which would be centred around a sweeping free-trade agreement.
The initial stages of negotiations, the terms stated, will see working groups focussing on citizens’ rights, financial settlement and "other separation issues" before moving on to the future relationship - exactly the order the EU has always insisted the Brexit talks would follow.
In addition to the groups, the two sides launched a dialogue on the Ireland - Northern Ireland border issue.
At a press conference, Davis was asked whether the UK agreed to the sequencing proposed by EU because Theresa May’s government is so weak. “It's how it finishes that matters,” the Brexit secretary said.
Barnier has a mandate from the EU’s 27 member states to focus on guaranteeing the rights of EU nationals living in the UK as well as the rights of Britons residing elsewhere in the EU. The European Commission’s Brexit taskforce recently published a paper outlining its position.
Davis said Theresa May will set out detailed plans for protecting the rights of EU citizens who live in Britain at the end of the week during a European Council with other EU leaders. The government will also publish a paper giving details next Monday.
The other priorities, which will be the centre of attention during the first months of the negotiations, will be to agree a method to calculate the UK’s financial and EU budget commitments, and finding a solution that would avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The EU’s negotiating guidelines also state that ensuring there isn’t a legal vacuum immediately after the UK leaves the EU should be discussed in the first stage of talks.
Only once the EU27 determine that “sufficient progress” has been made on these issues will talks be able to progress to a second phase, where the two sides will begin to scope out the future of their relationship.
On another issue Barnier had been pushing on – the need for the talks to be open and transparent – the terms state that “for both parties the default is transparency”.
The negotiators agreed to meet again in the week beginning 17 July, followed by meeting at the end of August, mid-September and 9 October.
During the first phase of talks, EU negotiators are expected to go through a list of rights of EU nationals line by line. The UK has said on several occasions that it wants to guarantee the EU nationals' rights, and the UK government has briefed that it plans to soon make a "generous offer".
However, the crux of this debate isn’t only about protecting all existing rights but how to reciprocally guarantee them in future too.
Another priority in the early stages of talks will be ensuring the peace process in Northern Ireland isn’t hindered, and both parties want to avoid a hard border. How this will be achieved in practice – as Britain ends freedom of movement and exits the customs union – is still unclear.
Both sides said they are taking extremely seriously the impact of Brexit on Ireland. The most senior bureaucrats on both sides have been personally charged with finding a solution to the complicated question of retaining a frictionless border between north and south after Brexit, and the issue took up much of the first day’s discussions.Davis said the Irish border was “a technically difficult issue but it’s one which I’m certain is soluble”.
It was “right at the top of the priorities” that the parties need to resolve before Britain leaves the union, the Brexit secretary added.
At a meeting with the Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Monday, May said she was committed to finding a "practical solution" to keeping the border open and frictionless.
Discussions about the so-called Brexit bill – the cost of Britain leaving the EU – will focus on finding a method to calculate a figure. This is likely to be driven by politics as much as by maths, with numerous voices in the UK arguing that Britain owes the EU nothing.
The EU has also argued that the withdrawal deal would need the oversight of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in order to be enforced, and to have the ability to sort out any possible disputes in future. However, ending ECJ jurisdiction over UK law is one area that the UK government has said is not negotiable.
Since May failed to win the strong majority she had set out to do, there has been much talk about the possibility of a “softer Brexit”. This could mean the economy and jobs taking priority over immigration – one of the key arguments in the case for leaving the EU.
However, there is no sign the government has changed its position on the substance that such an approach would require: halting freedom of movement, pulling out of the customs union, materially reducing payments towards the EU budget, and ending the ECJ’s oversight of UK law after Britain leaves the EU.
Arriving in Brussels on Monday morning, Davis said he wanted to approach talks in a “positive and constructive” manner.
“While there will be undoubtedly challenging times ahead of us in the negotiations, we will do all that we can to ensure that we deliver a deal that works in the best interests of all citizens,” Davis told reporters.
Britain is “determined to build a strong and special partnership with our European allies and friends,” he added.
Barnier said: “We must first tackle the uncertainties caused by Brexit, first for citizens, but also for the beneficiaries of EU policies, and for the impact on borders, in particular Ireland."
Alberto Nardelli is Europe editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alberto Nardelli at Alberto.Nardelli@buzzfeed.com.
Alex Spence is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Spence at email@example.com.
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