Theresa May has said Britain will enter negotiations on its future relationship with the EU in “a spirit of co-operation”, after leaders of the remaining 27 member states cleared the way for trade talks to begin.
The EU27 opened the door for trade negotiations by endorsing a deal on Britain’s 21-month transition to Brexit and approving guidelines designed to deliver a “balanced, ambitious and wide-ranging” free trade agreement with the UK.
The decision at the European Council summit in Brussels sets the scene for months of intensive and complex talks on trade in goods and services, as well as Britain’s security relationship with the EU after withdrawal.
Mrs May said she felt there was now “a new dynamic” in the negotiations.
“I believe we are approaching this with a spirit of co-operation, a spirit of opportunity for the future as well, and we will now be sitting down and determining those workable solutions for Northern Ireland, but also for our future security partnership and economic partnership,” she said.
Confirmation of the transition period stretching from Brexit day in March 2019 to the end of December 2020 will provide “certainty” for businesses and individuals, said the Prime Minister.
“It gives them the clarity to plan for their future and it ensures that they will only have to make one adjustment, one change, when we enter into the new relationship with the EU in the future,” she said.
But the negotiating guidelines agreed in Mrs May’s absence in Brussels include elements certain to spark rancour in the months to come.
A reference to Gibraltar was added to the document at the last minute, in apparent deference to Spain, which has been offered a veto on the future of the British overseas territory by the EU.
And the guidelines insist that EU negotiators should seek to maintain “existing reciprocal access” to fishing waters, which is likely to be fiercely resisted on the Conservative backbenches.
The EU document also envisages “ambitious provisions on movement of natural persons, based on full reciprocity and non-discrimination among member states”.
The guidelines called for the EU to have “as close as possible a partnership” with the UK in future, covering trade and economic co-operation as well as the fight against terrorism and international crime, security, defence and foreign policy.
But they warned that the red lines set down by Mrs May - including pulling Britain out of the single market and customs union - will “limit the depth” of any future partnership and “inevitably” lead to frictions in trade, resulting in “negative economic consequences, in particular in the United Kingdom”.
Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier, who kissed Mrs May’s hand as they met in the entrance lobby of the Europa building in Brussels, said Friday marked a “decisive” moment in “this difficult and extraordinary negotiation”.
He cautioned that the future partnership negotiated over the coming months “must respect the principles and identity of the EU and the single market”.
Addressing fellow leaders over dinner in Brussels on Thursday evening, Mrs May said it was their duty to show “energy and ambition” in the upcoming talks.
Britain believes that moving on to trade talks with the EU will help unblock the logjam over the Irish border and prevent the need to implement a “backstop” solution proposed by Brussels which would keep Northern Ireland in the customs union.
London is hopeful that a solution to keep Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic open will emerge in the context of a deal allowing trade between Britain and the rest of the EU to be as frictionless as possible.
Taioseach Leo Varadkar said that Ireland would seek “an agreement that keeps the UK as close to the EU as possible”.
He said: “That is the best way to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and also the best way to protect the enormous trade that occurs between Britain and Ireland, and that is so important for Irish jobs and our economy, and agriculture in particular.
“It is not a case of when they are winning we are losing or when they are losing we are winning.
“We are not going to get a good outcome for Ireland on that basis.”