EU leaders agree Brexit talks can move to second phase

European Union heads of state attend a breakfast meeting at an EU summit in Brussels today. Picture by John Thys, AP
Andrew Woodcock, Press Association Political Editor, in Brussels

European leaders have given the go-ahead for Brexit talks to move on to their second phase, dealing with the transition to a new relationship after the UK's withdrawal.

The momentous decision was announced by European Council president Donald Tusk after discussions lasting less than half an hour in Brussels.

British Prime Minister Theresa May was not present, because she left the two-day summit early after assuring leaders of the remaining 27 EU nations on Thursday evening of her determination to see Brexit through despite this week's defeat in the House of Commons.

Mr Tusk said on Twitter: "EU leaders agree to move on to the second phase of £Brexit talks. Congratulations PM theresa-may."

The EU27 agreed that last Friday's deal between Mrs May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker amounted to "sufficient progress" to move negotiations on to their second phase.

That deal, covering the divorce issues of citizens' rights, the Irish border and the UK's £39 billion exit bill, will now be transformed into a legally binding form to be signed by October ahead of ratification by the European Parliament, Westminster and national assemblies around the EU.

Meanwhile, negotiations can now start on the terms of a transition period, expected to last about two years after the official date of Brexit on March 29 2019.

But the long-awaited talks on a trade deal are expected to progress on a slower timetable, with the EU not expected to come up with its guidelines for the negotiations until March at the earliest.

EU leaders were putting pressure on Mrs May to spell out precisely what the UK wants on trade, with Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat saying: "I think the first really big step is for the UK to say pretty clearly what it wants, in clear terms.

"I think that if this happens within the next few weeks, we can start in earnest and by March we will have a very clear European position."

Friday's decision was considered little more than a formality after Mr Juncker and chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said they believed "sufficient progress" had been made, and the European Parliament overwhelmingly endorsed that verdict in a vote on Wednesday.

Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen welcomed the development, saying: "Now ready to move to phase two. Hope for close future relations with UK after Brexit."

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