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EU leaders agree to move onto phase two of Brexit talks, but warn of tough talks ahead

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said Britain’s phase one commitments must follow through to phase two.

European Council President Donald Tusk
European Council President Donald Tusk
Image: Ye Pingfan via PA Images

EUROPEAN UNION LEADERS have agreed 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.

However, they agreed that while talks will begin in January on a post-Brexit transition period of around two years, actual negotiations on future trade ties would not start until March.

“It is now time for internal EU 27 preparations and exploratory contacts with the UK to get more clarity on their vision,” Tusk told reporters at the end of the summit.

He congratulated British Prime Minister Theresa May – who had left the summit late yesterday evening – on the deal, and in return, she offered her thanks to him and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

May tweeted: “Today is an important step on the road to delivering a smooth and orderly Brexit and forging our deep and special future partnership.”

As he arrived for the meeting on today, Juncker – who sealed the deal with May on 8 December 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”.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed his comments, saying that while progress had been made, the negotiations ahead would be “even tougher”.

She had earlier warned that “there remain many issues to be solved and we don’t have much time”.

Britain voted to leave the EU in a referendum in June 2016 and is due to end its four-decade membership on 29 March 2019.

Irish concerns

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 today, the other EU leaders formally approved negotiating guidelines saying there had been “sufficient progress” and that the second phase could begin.

Last week, doubt was cast on the landmark Brexit deal after Britain’s Brexit minister said that the deal was not legally binding.

Davis told The Andrew Marr Show on BBC 1, “This was a statement of intent more than anything else. Much more a statement of intent that it was a legally enforceable thing.”

However, on Sunday, a government spokesperson said Ireland and the EU will hold the UK to the Brexit agreement.

Reiterating this remark today, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney told RTÉ’s Today With Sean O’Rourke that all 27 EU countries are insisting that what was committed in phase one of Brexit negotiations has to be followed through in phase two.

“We won’t even progress with it probably beyond March unless there is proof on that. I think the proof of it will be that the EU commission through the Barnier task force will develop a draft withdrawal agreement early in the New Year,” Coveney said.

“There will certainly be a follow through on the commitments that the UK have made in the first phase. And if Britain if not supportive of that, I don’t think the talks will progress.”

Coveney said if we are forced down the road of negotiating a classic free trade agreement with no special deals, it won’t be a good outcome for Ireland or Britain.

He said if the UK insists on leaving the EU, the single market and customs union, it is clear in the guidelines today that the EU team will be forced into looking at a Canada-style trade deal.

“We would prefer if Britain chooses a Norway-style relationship with the EU… where it appeals all the rules of the single market but has preferential access,” Coveney said.

“Now the problem for Britain with that is they become a rule taker but I think here are arrangements they could negotiate around that.”

With reporting by AFP

Read: Varadkar says he has ‘absolute confidence and trust’ in British government

More: Theresa May suffers big defeat on Brexit, with own MPs rebelling against her

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