European leaders have come together to back a tough negotiating position on Brexit.
The 27 remaining members states formally agreed their talks strategy at a special European Council meeting in Brussels.
Council president Donald Tusk tweeted the outcome of their discussions, saying: ‘Guidelines adopted unanimously. EU 27 firm and fair political mandate for the Brexit talks is ready.’
With much of the ground work having been done ahead of the summit, leaders took less than an hour to endorse the joint approach.
The agreement comes just days after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there were ‘illusions’ in Britain about what Brexit would actually mean for the country. She said it appeared the UK thought it could retain EU benefits once it departed the bloc.
Merkel’s intervention will have been heard loud and clear by Theresa May as the German leader is not known for using emotional language.
The guidelines remained essentially unchanged from the draft proposals published by Tusk last month.
Central to that is the ‘phased’ approach, with EU leaders insisting the shape of a future trading relationship can only be considered when progress is made on the terms of the UK’s departure.
Tusk said it was vital for the 27 to remain united.
‘It is only then that we will be able to conclude the negotiations which means that our unity is also in the UK’s interest,’ he said.
‘As for now I feel strong support from all the EU institutions, including the European Parliament, as well as all the 27 member states.
‘I know this is something unique, but I am confident that it will not change.’
Asked if he agreed with Merkel’s analysis, EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters in Brussels: ‘That’s my impression, yes.’
Tusk has insisted ‘sufficient progress’ must be made on disentangling the UK from its ties and obligations to the EU before discussions can turn to the post-Brexit relations.
Key issues in the first phase are the size of the disputed ‘divorce bill’ the UK will need to stump up on departure – estimated by EU officials at around £50 billion – and addressing uncertainty over the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and British expats residing on the continent.
Tusk has also signalled a desire to resolve the thorny problem of the Irish border – and how to avoid customs and immigrant checkpoints on the politically sensitive frontier – before moving negotiations to the second stage.
Entering the summit meeting, Irish premier Enda Kenny said his fellow EU leaders were aware of the ‘difficulties’ Ireland faced due to Brexit.
‘You are aware that Ireland has prepared assiduously and very well for this over the last 18 months and our priorities are reflected in the document from the European Parliament and from the European Council,’ he said.
Arriving at the landmark Europa building for the summit, Tusk had said: ‘We all want a close and strong future relationship with the UK – there is absolutely no question about that.
‘But before discussing our future we have to sort out our past, and we will handle it with genuine care, but fairly.
‘This I think is the only possible way to move forward.
‘We also need solid guarantees for all citizens and their families who will be affected by Brexit on both sides.
‘This must be the number one priority for the EU and the UK.
‘And the Commission has already prepared a precise and detailed list of citizens’ rights we want to protect.’
Aside from dealing with the present day Irish border, the European Council is set to provisionally agree its approach if the day came when the people of Northern Ireland voted to end partition and join a united Ireland.
While not part of the Brexit negotiating guidelines, a statement to the minutes of Saturday’s summit is expected to reflect that, in such circumstances, Northern Ireland would automatically assume the EU membership already held by the Republic of Ireland, rather than having to reapply.
However, those minutes will only be formally adopted at the next EU council meeting next month.
One of the more controversial elements of Tusk’s draft guidelines in March was a suggested veto for Spain on any future UK/EU agreements that involved Gibraltar.
As EU leaders continued to discuss Brexit issues, a spokesman for Tusk confirmed there had been no changes to the draft guidelines.
‘The guidelines are exactly as you have already seen them and there are no changes to the draft guidelines, they have been now adopted,’ he said.