Senior British and EU officials will discuss the UK’s future relationship with the European Union for the first time on Wednesday, in a milestone for the Brexit talks.
More than a year after the government triggered article 50, British and EU negotiators will meet across a table to discuss the UK’s future trade ties.
The talks will be mostly limited to a formal presentation on the negotiating guidelines agreed by EU leaders in March, as well as setting a schedule for future meetings. Nonetheless, it is a significant moment for the UK, 10 months after the Brexit secretary, David Davis, was forced to bow to the EU’s timetable, having previously promised the “row of the summer”.
Before Wednesday’s meeting, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, stepped up his call for guarantees to ensure that EU citizens can avoid the “bureaucratic nightmare” that has ensnared the Windrush generation.
Speaking in the European parliament in Strasbourg, Verhofstadt called on the chief Brexit negotiators, Davis and Michel Barnier, to be ready to make changes to the withdrawal treaty, if MEPs deemed modifications were needed.
“Certainly after the Windrush scandal in Britain we want to be sure that the same is not happening to our European citizens and that there is no bureaucratic nightmare there,” he said.
Home Office officials will be grilled by a special group of MEPs next Tuesday in Brussels, where they will be quizzed on the procedure for 3.5 million EU citizens to obtain special status. Following that meeting “if there are changes needed we will also communicate to the negotiators, to David Davis to Michel Barnier, what modifications are needed to avoid problems for EU citizens” Verhofstadt said.
While the the European parliament is not negotiating Brexit, it has the power to veto the final deal and MEPs insist they are ready to use it.
Wednesday’s talks are being led by Barnier’s deputy, Sabine Weyand, and the UK prime minister’s Europe envoy, Olly Robbins. Before talks on the future relationship, the pair are meeting to discuss progress on resolving the status of the Irish border, the most intractable issue of the talks.
As that meeting was getting under way, Donald Tusk, the head of the European council, reiterated his warning that the UK risked leaving the EU without a deal if there was no solution on Ireland.
“The UK’s decision on Brexit has caused the problem, and the UK will have to help solve it,” he told MEPs. “Without a solution, there will be no withdrawal agreement and no transition.”
The Irish government, which is frustrated by slow progress, is pressing for a solution to the border question by June. So far Ireland has benefited from solid support from the rest of the EU, illustrated by a Manfred Weber, the leader of the largest European parliament group, who told MEPs on Wednesday: “We are all Irish in this regard.”
Diplomats say support for Ireland is strong, although some think the Irish government’s hopes of solving the issue in June are unlikely to be realised. “I find it a bit unrealistic because [the Irish issue] is so political, it can only be wrapped with everything if we have crossed all the ‘t’s and dotted the ‘i’s, as part of a package on the future relationship,” one said.