With the clock ticking, Britain, EU play up chance of deal


UPDATE 6-With the clock ticking, Britain, EU play up chance of deal

(Adds quotes, edits throughout)
    By Alastair Macdonald and Elizabeth PiperBRUSSELS, June 19 (Reuters) - The British and EU Brexit
negotiators agreed how to organise talks on Britain's divorce at
a first meeting in Brussels on Monday, where both sides stressed
goodwill but also the huge complexity and tight deadline.
    "We've laid solid foundations for future discussions and an
ambitious but achievable timetable," said David Davis, Britain's
Brexit minister, adding he was "encouraged" by the first talks.
But the European Union'sMichel Barnier made clear little was
agreed but an initial calendar and a structure for negotiations.
    The talks began almost a year to the day after Britain
shocked Europe by voting to cut loose from the 28-nation EU, its
biggest market.
    They also come three months after Prime Minister Theresa May
locked Britain into a two-year countdown to Brexit in March
2019. Perhaps more important, they begin just 10 days after a
humbling election setback revived divisions within May's
government on what kind of relationship it wants with the EU.
    Davis brushed off a suggestion that a weakened Conservative
government had dropped objections to a Brussels timetable, which
would deal first with EU priorities, including its demand
Britain settle a "Brexit bill", and leave the talks on free
trade that May wants until at least late this year.
    Davis insisted that talks about trade would occur "in
parallel", but Barnier said they would start only in a second
phase. First, "significant progress" would need to be made on
the EU's priority issues, notably the rights of expatriate
citizens and a settling financial accounts. An EU official said
Britain still refused to accept it would owe Brussels anything.
    EU officials believe, however, that May and her ministers
are coming round to accepting Brussels' rules. For one thing,
renewed debate in her cabinet on how far to go with her clean
break from the single market and customs union has made it hard
to present a coherent set of demands in Brussels.
    Uncertainty over the future trading relationship also means
that special status in the talks has been given to discussions
on how to limit the impact on peace in Northern Ireland from the
creation of a new EU-UK border with the Irish Republic.

    Three negotiating groups will address agreed priorities on
citizens' rights, finances and other technical matters which
must be resolved to avoid a messy limbo after Brexit. The Irish
issue, long described as a priority for both, will be treated
somewhat differently; avoiding a "hard border" will necessarily
have to take account of how the rest of EU-UK trade will work.
    Though less visibly upbeat than veteran Brexit campaigner
Davis, Barnier insisted the two sides would work together for a
"fair deal" that would not "punish" Britain. But he also refused
to discuss concessions to Britons who, in the eyes of most EU
leaders, are committing an act of self-harm.
    "It is the United Kingdom that's leaving the European Union,
not the other way around," Barnier said sharply, speaking of
"unravelling" 44 years of relations. "Everyone must accept their
responsibilities, the consequences of their decisions ... So my
mind is not on making concessions or asking for concessions."
    May herself will be in Brussels on Thursday and Friday for a
regular summit with fellow EU leaders. Davis said she will tell
them about plans to guarantee rights for some 3 million EU
citizens in Britain under a proposal to be made next week.
    As with Monday's seven hours of meetings between Barnier,
Davis and their teams, her emphasis is expected to be on easing
tensions that have seen some spiky exchanges in recent months.
    Davis and Barnier, who chatted in English over lunch but
used interpreters for some of their more serious talks, made use
of their shared love of hill-walking to lighten the mood.
    They exchanged gifts -- a walking stick from Barnier's
native Alps for Davis, a French mountaineer's memoir in a
valuable first edition from the Briton to the Frenchman.
    And at a final news conference they traded quotes from their
respective nations' history: Barnier cited EU founding father
Jean Monnet to say: "I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I
am determined." Davis channelled Winston Churchill: "The
pessimist see difficulty in every opportunity, the optimist sees
opportunity in every difficulty. And so bridging between
Churchill and Monnet, I am certainly a determined optimist."

 (Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Jan Strupczewski
and Charlotte Steenackers, editing by Larry King)
 ((alastair.macdonald@thomsonreuters.com; Reuters Messaging:


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