EU leaders back decision on Brexit talks
The European Union agreed on Friday to move to the next stage of Brexit talks with Britain, clearing the way for years of complex discussions over trade and border issues.
EU leaders agreed at a meeting in Brussels that sufficient progress had been made on key topics such as the Irish border and the so-called divorce bill that Britain needs to pay to end more than 40 years of tightly-meshed relationships within the bloc.
"EU leaders agree to move on to the second phase of Brexit talks. Congratulations PM Theresa May," European Council President Donald Tusk, who chairs EU summits, said on Twitter.
In response, Mrs May – who was not allowed to be part of the discussions – said the decision was an important step to ensuring a “smooth and orderly” Brexit.
Despite the warm words after months of often rancorous disputes, EU leaders warned that major problems remained before Britain leaves the 28-nation union in March 2019.
Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said that even a primary school student could see upcoming difficulties over the state of the UK’s only land border with the EU on the island of Ireland.
Negotiations on issues such as trade could only go ahead if commitments during the first phase are respected and "translated faithfully into legal terms as quickly as possible", according to a document released by the European Council.
The comments follow a spat earlier this week when Britain's chief negotiator appeared to row back on commitments agreed after talks between the two sides.
While Mrs May may have secured agreement with fellow EU leaders, she faces divisions within her own party.
One prominent lawmaker within her own party, Dominic Grieve, has received death threats after leading a parliamentary rebellion that inflicted the prime minister's first defeat on Brexit this week.
The EU is willing to start talks next month on a roughly two-year transition period to ease Britain out after March 2019, but has asked for more detail from London on what it wants before it will open trade negotiations from March of next year.
The document released Friday said the second phase of the talks related only to "transition and the framework for the future relationship" rather than the detail of a trade deal.
EU officials are divided over whether Britain should continue to receive the full economic benefits of EU membership during a transition after it leaves, even if it loses political representation in Brussels.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave her stamp of approval, but cautioned time was running out.
“We made clear that Theresa May has made an offer that should allow us to say that we have seen sufficient progress,” she told reporters. “Nevertheless, there are still a lot of problems to solve. And time is of the essence.”
Britain will remain under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and be required to permit freedom of movement during any transition period, under guidelines released by the European Council.