The EU’s chief negotiator, France’s Michel Barnier, welcomed his counterpart David Davis at the European Commission’s headquarters in central Brussels.
“Today we are launching negotiations on the orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU,” said Barnier, a former European commissioner and French foreign minister.
Their first task must be to “tackle the uncertainties caused by Brexit,” he said, citing the rights of EU citizens in Britain and the possible impact on the open border between Northern Ireland and the republic.
“I hope that today we can identify priorities and a timetable to allow me to report to (EU leaders) later this week (that) we had a constructive opening of negotiations.”
Davis, a prominent tough-talking figure in the “Leave” campaign, sounded a positive note too, saying “there is more that unites us than divides us.”
Davis said the talks would be carried out in “a positive and constructive tone,” with Britain looking to forge a “strong and special partnership for the future.”
Last year’s Brexit vote came as a profound shock to Brussels against a backdrop of rising anti-EU sentiment, with many predicting the bloc’s eventual break-up.
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May officially triggered the two-year Brexit process in March when she was riding high in the opinion polls.
She then announced — despite having ruled it out repeatedly — that she would seek a fresh mandate to give her the authority to push through a Brexit deal, or even walk away without one if need be.
But instead she lost her parliamentary majority, putting that hard-line approach and her political future in doubt after the disastrous June 8 election.
Britain appears to have given in on the EU’s insistence that the negotiations first focus on three key divorce issues, before moving onto the future EU-UK relationship and a possible trade deal.
Those issues are Britain’s exit bill, estimated by Brussels at around 100 billion euros (USD 112 billion), the rights of three million EU nationals living in Britain and one million Britons on the continent, and the status of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
After the initial shock of last year’s Brexit vote, the EU bloc at 27 appears to have steadied in recent months and got a real boost with the election of new French President Emmanuel Macron in May.
Macron, a committed pro-EU leader and ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, easily won French legislative elections on Sunday, cementing his power base.
Worried by immigration and loss of sovereignty, Britain voted last year to end its four-decades-old membership of the 28-country bloc — the first state ever to do so.
An increasingly concerned EU has been pushing London to hurry up, with time running out for a deal and three months already gone since May triggered the two-year Article 50 EU exit process.
Many in Brussels fear that London has no real strategy, with May under pressure at home, still trying to close a deal with a conservative Northern Ireland party to stay in power, and facing criticism for her handling of the aftermath of a devastating tower block fire.
Finance minister Philip Hammond confirmed yesterday that it was still the plan to quit not only the EU but the customs union and single market as well. But he warned that “we need to get there via a slope, not via a cliff edge”.
Barnier has warned that the negotiations must be wrapped up by October 2018 to allow time for all parties to ratify a final accord by March 2019.
(With inputs from agencies)