BRUSSELS Britain and the European Union (EU) struck a divorce deal yesterday that paves the way for arduous trade talks, easing the immediate pressure on British Prime Minister Theresa May and boosting hopes of an orderly Brexit.
Mrs May rushed to Brussels before dawn to seal the European Commission agreement that "sufficient progress" had been made to begin talks about trade and a two-year Brexit transition period that will start when Britain leaves the EU on March 29, 2019.
Negotiators in London, Brussels and Dublin worked through the night before breaking an impasse over the status of the Irish border, the last major obstacle to the opening of trade talks which EU leaders are due to bless at a summit on Dec 14-15.
Speaking before sunrise at the EU's executive headquarters in Brussels after a hurried flight on a Royal Air Force plane, Mrs May said opening up trade talks would bring certainty for citizens and businesses about Britain's future after quitting the EU.
"The most difficult challenge is still ahead," European Council President Donald Tusk cautioned. "We all know that breaking up is hard. But breaking up and building a new relationship is much harder."
Mrs May, looking weary after just a couple of hours sleep, spoke after European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced the breakthrough first in English and then in German and French.
The move to trade talks 18 months after the United Kingdom's shock vote to exit the EU allayed some fears of a disorderly Brexit that could disrupt trade between the world's biggest trading bloc and its sixth-largest national economy.
The pound climbed to a six-month high against the euro yesterday before it fell back around midday to sit broadly flat, with one euro worth 87.4 pence, while bond yields across the euro zone rose.
Against the US dollar the pound also weakened.
Facing 27 other members of the bloc, Mrs May largely conceded to the EU on structure, timetable and substance of the negotiations.
Moving to talks about trade and a Brexit transition was crucial for her own future after her premiership was thrown into doubt when she lost the ruling Conservative Party its majority in an unwisely called snap election in June.
"I very much welcome the prospect of moving ahead," said Mrs May, who herself voted to stay in the EU in a referendum in June 2016 but has repeatedly insisted Britain will make a success of Brexit.
Draft guidelines showed the transition period, which would start on March 29, 2019, would last around two years.
During that time, Britain will remain part of the customs union and single market but will no longer take part in EU institutions or have a vote. It will also still be subject to EU law.
Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage struck a jarring note saying it was extraordinary a British premier had conceded so much in the middle of the night, agreeing to all the EU's demands.
The EU had insisted it would only move to trade talks if there was enough progress on three key issues: the money Britain must pay to the EU; rights for EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in the EU; and how to avoid a hard border with Ireland. - REUTERS