Nearly exactly a year after Britain's seismic referendum to leave the bloc, the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier of France, welcomed his counterpart David Davis with a cheery handshake at the European Commission in Brussels. At stake is not just Britain's future but also Europe's post-war political order and its place in the world which could be fatally undermined without an agreement by the March 2019 deadline. Their first task must be to "tackle the uncertainties caused by Brexit", he said, citing the rights of European Union citizens in Britain and the possible impact on the open border between Northern Ireland and the republic.
Day one of the negotiations, at the European Commission buildings in Brussels, will be followed by a joint press conference this evening by Davis and the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier, a former French foreign minister and EU commissioner.
Davis's agreement to Monday's agenda led some European Union officials to believe May's government may at last be coming around to Brussels' view of how negotiations should be run.
"While there will undoubtedly be challenging times ahead of us in the negotiations we will do all that we can to ensure that we deliver a deal that works in the best interests of all citizens". "For Britain to get a good trade deal it might have to acquiesce or talks could turn sour", he said.
Today's talks are likely to focus on the practical details of timings for the coming months, with the big, divisive issues left aside for now, officials said. Both sides will put top advisers to work immediately on a border agreement between Ireland and the United Kingdom, aiming to make sure the Irish peace agreement and the common travel area should as unaffected by Britain's European Union departure as possible.
Germany's foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel has signalled that the United Kingdom may be able to secure a "soft" Brexit that allows Britain to retain access to Europe's single market.
"The best way we can spend this week is to rebuild trust", another European source said.
Yet 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.
Chancellor Phillip Hammondsuggested on Sunday a less aggressive tone should be taken in negotiations, indicating that "transactional structures" would be needed to help smooth the process and that "we need to get there via a slope, not via a cliff edge".
In carefully choreographed talks that even saw the two men exchange mountaineering gifts, they agreed to discuss divorce issues before negotiations on a future trade deal can start.
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