European Union leaders to open crucial talks on relationship with Britain

Vastavam web: European Union leaders agreed today to open crucial talks on a future relationship with Britain but warned they would be even tougher than the first tortuous phase of negotiations.EU President Donald Tusk said the bloc would open “exploratory contacts” with London after European leaders endorsed an interim deal on the terms of Britain’s divorce, and approved the next stage of discussions.He congratulated British Prime Minister Theresa May — who had left the summit late yesterday — on the deal, and in return she offered her thanks to him and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

“Today is an important step on the road to delivering a smooth and orderly Brexit and forging our deep and special future partnership,” May tweeted.As he arrived for the meeting on Friday, Juncker — who sealed the deal with May on December 8 after tense all-night talks — said the British premier had made “big efforts”.But he warned the next stage “would be much harder than the first phase, and the first phase was very hard”.After months of difficult talks, May and Juncker agreed a deal on the key divorce issues of Britain’s exit bill, the future of the Irish border and expatriate rights.

At a meeting without the British premier on Friday, the other EU leaders formally approved negotiating guidelines saying there had been “sufficient progress” and that the second phase could begin.May had yesterday addressed her counterparts over dinner and was “clear about wanting to move onto trade talks as quickly as possible” with “ambition and creativity”, a British official said.Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said she was a “formidable political operator” but that it was “crucial” she sets out Britain’s wish list for long-term ties.

The EU guidelines stress that it is not possible to sign a formal trade deal until after Britain had left the bloc, and officials warned it could take years to do so.Options for a future relationship include following the model of a recent EU-Canada trade deal, or Norway’s membership of the European Economic Area.Questions still linger however over the divorce agreement, after Brexit minister David Davis appeared to suggest it was not legally enforceable and that Britain would only pay its exit bill if it got a trade deal.There are particular concerns about the guarantee made by London — at Dublin’s request — that there will be no frontier checks between Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.