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20 June 2017, 10:44 | Jan Cross
After nearly a year of waffling, Britain on Monday finally opens negotiations with its European Union counterparts about leaving the bloc, with the final outcome, due in 2019, as important as it now seems unpredictable. Speaking at the end of the first day of talks, the Brexit secretary, David Davis, confirmed that the United Kingdom now accepts the EU's negotiating timetable.
May says Britain will leave the EU's single market in goods and services and its tariff-free customs union, but nonetheless, somehow, wants "frictionless" free trade.
"This first session was useful, we start off on the right foot as the clock is ticking", Barnier told a joint press conference with British counterpart David Davis.
"We launch negotiations in a positive and constructive tone, determined to build a strong and special partnership between ourselves and our European allies and friends in the future".
Different working groups will negotiate on the issues of expat rights, the financial settlement and other separation issues, while the Irish border will be the subject of a "dialogue" between the senior civil servant at the Department for Exiting the European Union, Olly Robbins, and Mr Barnier's deputy Sabine Weyand. "We must first tackle the uncertainties caused by Brexit", he said. He did not mention a third European Union priority - that Britain settle a bill of tens of billions of euros before it leaves in 21 months.
Britain enters the negotiations with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May facing huge political challenges at home following an election which saw her Conservative party lose its majority in Parliament.
While Barnier insists on the "sequencing" of talks, so that trade negotiations can not 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.
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The bloc has expanded steadily since first formed as the European Economic Community in 1957 by France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.
Davis said the talks were off to a "promising start" and denied that Britain had caved in on the sequencing of the talks.
"The most important thing for us is to look to the horizon, raise our eyes to the horizon". If no deal is struck by then, the sides may have to create a transitional deal, possibly prolonging some of the current relationship. European Union diplomats hope this first meeting, and a Brussels summit on Thursday and Friday where May will encounter - but not negotiate with - fellow European Union leaders, can improve the atmosphere after some spiky exchanges.
Davis was heartened by the spirit of the talks, during which the negotiators, both interested in mountaineering, exchanged a walking stick and a hiking book.
Davis, a prominent tough-talking figure in the "Leave" campaign, sounded a positive note, saying that while there would "undoubtedly be challenging times ahead" he wanted a good relationship with the EU.
According to Barnier, the intention on behalf of the European Commission is to keep talks as transparent as possible.
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