Negotiations between the UK and the EU have got off to a “promising start”, Brexit Secretary David Davis says.
Mr Davis gave a joint press conference alongside EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier – who warned of “consequences” of the Brexit vote – in Brussels.
The initial focus will be on expat rights, a financial settlement and “other separation issues”.
Discussions aimed at preserving the Good Friday Agreement and common travel area in Ireland will also begin.
The two men – who exchanged gifts at the start of the talks – set out the structure for the initial negotiations. There will be one week of negotiations every month.
Working groups of “senior experts” will be set up to focus on the three main areas.
On citizens’ rights, which the UK has said should be an immediate priority, Mr Davis said there was “much common ground”.
- Politics Live: Rolling updates
- Brexit: Everything you need to know
- The key issues in EU/UK talks
- Business call for market access after Brexit
The UK is set to leave the EU by the end of March 2019, following last year’s referendum vote.
Mr Barnier said a “fair deal” was possible “and far better than no deal”. He promised to work with, not against, the UK.
“We must lift the uncertainty caused by Brexit,” he said.
The UK had wanted talks on its future relationship with the EU – including a trade deal – to be considered from the outset, but Mr Barnier said this would only happen once the European Council decided “sufficient progress has been made”.
Mr Davis said what is important is “not how the talks start, but how they end”.
Asked whether he had made any concessions to the UK in return, Mr Barnier said the UK had decided to leave the EU – not the other way around.
There will be “human, legal, technical and political” consequences which should not be underestimated, he said.
Mr Davis said the issues around Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland may not be settled until the end of the process, when the UK’s trade relationship with the EU will be settled.
Who’s who in the UK delegation?
- David Davis: Secretary of State for Exiting The EU
- Tim Barrow: UK permanent representative to the EU
- Oliver Robbins: permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting The EU
- Glynn Williams: director general at the Home Office
- Mark Bowman: director general, international finance at HM Treasury
- Simon Case: director general, UK-EU partnership team
- Alex Ellis: director general at the Department for Exiting the EU
- Christian Jones: press officer to David Davis
Mr Barnier said a “constructive” opening to negotiations was vital in setting the tone for what he hoped would be an “orderly” process.
“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,” he said.
Prior to the start of talks, Mr Davis gave his counterpart a first edition of a mountaineering book – a French-language version of Regards vers Annapurna – while Mr Barnier reciprocated with a traditional, hand-carved walking stick from Savoie, complete with leather wrist strap.
- The people who will negotiate Brexit
- What are the different Brexit options?
- Scots should be at EU talks says Tory MEP
After holding talks with Theresa May in Downing Street, new Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar said there must be no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and economic borders must be “invisible”.
While he said he regretted Mrs May’s decision to leave the single market and customs union, he said the two had a shared objective to minimise disruption to trade after the UK’s exit.
Former Marks and Spencer chairman Lord Rose, who chaired the Stronger In campaign last year, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he was reassured that economic considerations were “top of the pile” but ministers needed to be realistic with the public.
Speaking on the same programme, JD Wetherspoon founder Tim Martin – one of the leading pro-Leave business voices – said negotiators had to be open to possible compromises but also prepared to walk away and to default to World Trade Organization rules if necessary.
“I don’t think many people feel that staying in the single market and customs union and being subject to EU laws is Brexit. I think Brexit is parliamentary sovereignty and an assertion of democracy. Outside that, I think there is a quite a lot of scope,” he said.
For Labour, shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said there was “real confusion” about the government’s mandate after the general election result.