Britain and the EU vowed to get to the “heart of the matter” as they launched fresh Brexit talks in Brussels on Monday, even as bitter infighting gripped the British government.
Brexit minister David Davis met EU negotiator Michel Barnier for a second round of talks ahead of Britain’s historic withdrawal from the bloc, scheduled for March 2019.
But in London there was fresh turmoil as weakened Prime Minister Theresa May prepared to urge her warring ministers to end damaging leaks against one another over Brexit.
“Now it’s time to get down to work and make this a successful negotiation,” Davis told reporters as Barnier welcomed him to the headquarters of the European Commission.
During four days of talks the two sides hope to make progress on key issues surrounding Britain’s withdrawal, including citizens’ rights and its exit bill, so that negotiations can move on to discuss a future trade deal later this year.
“For us it’s incredibly important we now make good progress, that we negotiate through this and identify the differences so we can deal with them and identify the similarities so that we can reinforce them,” added Davis.
Barnier, who has repeatedly called on Britain to set out a full divorce strategy, said they needed to “examine and compare our respective positions in order to make good progress.”
“We’ll now delve into the heart of the matter,” Barnier, a former French foreign minister and European Commissioner, told reporters.
Davis however stayed only a few hours before returning to Britain for parliamentary business, officials said. He will come back to Brussels on Thursday for more talks with Barnier and a news conference.
British media and Twitter commentators pounced on images taken as Davis and his team sat down opposite the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier; all three EU officials had thick piles of papers in front of them, while Davis, his lead negotiator and Britain’s EU ambassador had none.
“David Davis has vowed to ‘get down to business’ and hit the ‘substance’ of Brexit talks as a new round kicks off today,” wrote the Daily Mirror. “But there’s just one little problem.
“The Tory Brexit Secretary has been pictured sitting down for negotiations in Brussels… without any notes.”
“Perhaps they have amazing memories, or perhaps they’ve hidden the paperwork under the desk,” wrote Britain’s left-leaning Guardian. “Alternatively, this could be an indication that all those EU complaints about the UK government not knowing what it wants from the talks are not entirely unfounded.”
But May’s minority government remains fragile one month after the snap June 8 election in which Conservative Party lost its majority, leaving the EU wondering whether she can actually formulate a coherent Brexit policy.
Over the weekend British newspapers were full of reports of a civil war within her cabinet, with Finance Minister Philip Hammond in particular being targeted over allegations he was trying to derail Brexit.
“Cabinet must be able to hold discussions of government policy in private and the Prime Minister will be reminding her colleagues of that at the Cabinet meeting tomorrow,” the spokesman said.