World

Brexit talks begin today despite recent turmoil

Britain enters talks with EU under a cloud after recent terror attacks and London fire

LONDON Britain begins historic talks today on leaving the European Union (EU) while still mourning the victims of a devastating fire and reeling from an election that has badly weakened the government.

Brexit minister David Davis will travel to Brussels to meet Mr Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, to kick off hugely complex withdrawal negotiations that are expected to conclude within two years.

Worried by immigration and loss of sovereignty, Britain last year voted to end its decades-old membership of the 28-country bloc - the first state ever to do so - in a shock referendum result.

The government has developed a strategy of so-called "hard Brexit": leaving the European single market and the customs union in order to control immigration from the EU.

But that entire approach has come under question following the June 8 general election in which Prime Minister Theresa May lost her centre-right Conservative Party's parliamentary majority.

Mrs May has clung on to power but has so far failed to conclude an agreement with Northern Ireland's ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party that would bolster her ability to govern.

The government is due to present its legislative programme at the opening of parliament on Wednesday, which will be followed by a key confidence vote several days later.

Adding to what Queen Elizabeth II called the "sombre national mood" have been three terrorist attacks in three months and a fire in a London tower block in which 58 people are presumed dead.

The government's current weakness has fuelled criticism of its approach to Brexit and given rise to notions that it might pursue a softer tone.

Some Conservatives have called for a more inclusive approach that would involve opposition parties as well as stronger voices from Scotland and Northern Ireland, where a majority of voters backed Britain to stay in the EU.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who is newly influential after winning a crucial 13 seats in Scotland, has said Britain should prioritise "freedom to trade and our economic growth".

But finance minister Philip Hammond confirmed yesterday that Britain would still be leaving the EU, the single market and the customs union.

"We will leave the customs union when we leave the European Union. That is a statement of legal fact," he told BBC television.

POST-BREXIT TRADE

He said he wanted post-Brexit trade with the EU that was not just free from tariffs but also delays and bureaucracy.

But Mr Hammond said transitional arrangements would be necessary, to give business greater certainty.

"If we're going to radically change the way we work together, we need to get there via a slope, not via a cliff edge," he said.

Today's negotiations are to start with 90 minutes of talks between Mr Barnier and Mr Davis, followed by a working lunch between the pair, and a press conference.

Working groups will be set up to focus on three key areas - the status of EU citizens living in Britain and British citizens living in the EU; the divorce bill for Britain; and the future of the Northern Irish border with EU member Ireland.

Britain and the EU are already at odds over the order of the talks, with London insisting future trade ties should be discussed at the same time as the divorce despite opposition from Brussels.

And Mr Hammond described the divorce bill figures being bandied around in Brussels as "the most egregious pre-negotiation posturing".

The negotiations have been called the most complex in Britain's history as it unravels 44 years of membership and its threat to walk out with no deal in place has worried European capitals. - AFP

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