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EU wants divorce 'progress' before talks on new ties

Brexit guidelines by EU president calls for 'phased approach' as remaining countries pledge unity

VALLETTA, MALTA: The European Union (EU) demanded that Britain make "sufficient progress" on its divorce before any talks on a future trade deal can start as it laid out its tough Brexit negotiating plans yesterday.

EU president Donald Tusk's draft guidelines said the other 27 countries are ready for a transitional deal after Britain's exit in March 2019, but that such an arrangement would have to be under EU rules.

British Prime Minister Theresa May had, in her letter triggering the two-year exit process on Wednesday, called for talks on the divorce and a future deal to run in parallel as soon as negotiations start.

The EU has proclaimed its unity on Brexit, even as it reels from Britain's intention to become the first member state to leave in the bloc's 60-year history.

Mr Tusk's strategy will now be sent out to the leaders of the 27 remaining EU countries ahead of a special summit on April 29, when they will agree on them so that talks can start next month.

Germany and France had already set out a united and uncompromising stance against Mrs May's demands.

Mr Tusk's guidelines said the EU calls for a "phased approach" that prioritises an orderly withdrawal that will reduce the disruption caused by Britain's departure in March 2019.

"The European Council will monitor progress closely and determine when sufficient progress has been achieved to allow negotiations to proceed to the next phase on a future relationship", the draft guidelines said.

The EU said no trade deal can be agreed on before Brexit takes effect.

But it is also open to a transitional arrangement after Brexit as a "bridge" to a future deal some years down the line, but said it would have to be under EU rules.

It said it is making preparations in case talks break down.

Mr Tusk was due to give a press conference in Malta with Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, to discuss the strategy.

The EU's chief negotiator, France's Michel Barnier, is expected to get the green light to start talks with Britain on May 22, an EU official said.

Mrs May formally notified the EU of Britain's intention to leave in a letter to Mr Tusk on Wednesday, which diplomats described as surprisingly conciliatory in tone for the most part.

But Mrs May's warning in the letter that failure to clinch a deal on trade would affect Britain's cooperation on terrorism and security still rankled with many.

"It is not a threat," Brexit minister David Davis told BBC radio after warnings from Brussels against using security as a bargaining chip in the talks.

UNIFIED

The EU insisted it is unified ahead of the negotiations.

"Brexit is not the end of everything, but we must make it a beginning of something that will be new, stronger and better," European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said in Malta on Thursday.

French President Francois Hollande followed German Chancellor Angela Merkel in snubbing Mrs May's proposed structure for the negotiations, saying the exit agreement should come first.

The fate of 3 million EU citizens living in Britain and 1 million British people within the bloc's nations is at the top of leaders' agenda.

Also looming large is the so-called "exit bill" that Britain will have to pay - estimated to be as much as 60 billion euros (S$83.9 billion) - and the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

EU leaders hope to resolve those issues by the end of the year before moving on to the future relationship and a possible transition.

But that leaves only 10 months before October 2018, the time Mr Barnier said the talks must wrap up to give time for the European Parliament and member states to approve what the negotiators come up with. - AFP

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