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EU's Barnier Hopes to Remove Brexit Uncertainties as Talks Begin

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06/19/2017 | 12:29pm CEST
By Laurence Norman and Valentina Pop 

BRUSSELS--The U.K. and the European Union started talks on Britain's exit from the bloc Monday morning, almost a year after the U.K. voted to leave, with EU chief negotiator saying he hoped the two sides can start removing the uncertainties created by that decision.

The two sides have until March 2019 to complete and ratify a deal on the U.K.'s divorce from the EU after more than four decades of membership and to try to shape a future partnership between Britain and its neighbors.

In short press statements, the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said he hoped Monday's discussions can "identify priorities and timetable that would allow me to report...that we had a constructive opening of negotiations."

"Our objective is clear. We must first tackle the uncertainties caused by Brexit," he said.

The U.K.'s Brexit Secretary David Davis said the British government was determined to "deliver a deal that works in the best interest of all citizens."

"To that end, we are starting negotiations in a positive and constructive tone, determined to build a strong and special partnership between ourselves and our European partners and friends in the future," he said.

Britain enters the negotiations with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May facing huge political challenges at home following an election which saw her Conservative party lose its majority in Parliament.

There are widespread questions over whether Britain may soften its Brexit goals outlined before the election, which include taking the U.K. out of the EU's single market for goods and services and the bloc's customs union. However, European officials have said in recent days negotiations must proceed on the basis of Mrs. May's current plans.

The EU has said that before it will start discussing a future trade deal with the U.K., it wants to resolve the biggest uncertainties arising from Brexit, including the future rights of around 3 million EU citizens in the U.K. and the arrangements for avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The EU is also seeking British commitments to meet all past EU spending pledges when it leaves the bloc, a bill European officials say could amount to upward of EUR60 billion ($67.2 billion).

Mr. Barnier has said he hopes to conclude the talks by October 2018, leaving six months to ratify the deal. A trade agreement can only be completed once the U.K. leaves the bloc. Some European officials say that could take years.

EU leaders have said they hope sufficient progress is made on the key divorce issues by the autumn to allow discussions to begin on the future trade and security relationship. EU leaders must unanimously agree when they are ready to do so.

Write to Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com and Valentina Pop at valentina.pop@wsj.com

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