As London feuds, full Brexit negotiations open in Brussels

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Britain’s Brexit minister pledged to “get down to work” as he kicked off a first full round of negotiations on Monday, but a year after Britons voted narrowly to leave the EU their government seemed at war with itself over the divorce terms.

Prime Minister Theresa May, her authority diminished after losing her majority in a June election she did not need to call, has struggled to control rival cabinet ministers. That worries European Union negotiators who stress that 20 months until Brexit is very little time to negotiate an orderly departure.

“It’s time to get down to work and make this a successful negotiation,” veteran anti-EU campaigner David Davis, the Brexit secretary, said after meeting the bloc’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier before their teams began four days of talks.

In London, media were rife with reports of infighting along the lines of the Leave-Remain rifts that May’s Conservative party suffered during the referendum. Her spokesman said she would tell ministers not to reveal cabinet discussions.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, in Brussels for a separate meeting, passed up a chance to deny that ministers were at odds.

His backing helped secure a four-point victory for the Leave camp in June last year. Asked if the cabinet was still “split on Brexit”, Johnson simply said he was pleased negotiations had begun and then defended the offer May has made to protect the rights of EU citizens in Britain.

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Finance minister Philip Hammond, who, like May, campaigned last year to keep Britain in the EU, accused unnamed colleagues of trying to undermine what is seen as his push for a “soft Brexit” that prioritizes trade rather than hardliners’ demands for controls on EU immigration or an end to EU legal oversight.

Splits in London over basic issues, such as the need for a phased withdrawal lasting for some years, could raise the risk of a failure to reach any deal, EU officials say. That would cause huge uncertainty for businesses and millions of people across Europe as Britain would simply be out of the bloc on March 30, 2019 with no clear rules on what that should mean.

Former British civil service chief Gus O’Donnell said: “It appears that cabinet members haven’t yet finished negotiating with each other, never mind the EU.”

British businesses are anxious to see a coherent approach in government to indicate how a transition would work and how long it would run, to help them make investment decisions.

A weekend of media briefings from competing factions within the Conservatives did little to reassure companies, though most cabinet ministers appear now to accept that there needs to be a transition, or what May calls an “implementation phase”.

A senior City of London official, Catherine McGuinness, told Reuters that firms in Europe’s main financial center needed clarity, ideally by the end of the year. “Decisions are already being made,” she said.

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In Brussels, Davis acknowledged it was “incredibly important” to make progress, “that we negotiate through this and identify the differences so that we can deal with them and identify the similarities so that we can reinforce them”.

Barnier said, “We will now delve into the heart of the matter”, before the two sat down for a first meeting flanked by the officials who will lead the detailed negotiations.

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Pictures showed no notes on the table in front of Davis and his two advisers, in contrast to sheaves of paperwork brought by Barnier and his team. That prompted mockery among critical British commentators who saw it as an image of the government’s failure to prepare for such a vital negotiation.

Davis later returned to London, leaving talks in the hands of the civil servants. Barnier and Davis are to brief the media on Thursday, when they should give political endorsement to whatever officials have managed to agree. Until then, little significant news may filter out from the talks.

Working groups focused on three issues: citizens’ rights; an EU demand that Britain pay billions of euros to cover ongoing EU budget commitments; and other loose ends. Officials were also at work at the World Trade Organization in Geneva to disentangle Britain from the EU’s WTO membership.

A fourth set of talks is focused on addressing problems in Northern Ireland once a new EU land border divides the island.

Dozens of officials from both sides are involved, some shuttling among meeting rooms scattered over nearly half the floors of the European Commission’s 13-storey Berlaymont headquarters, fueled, one said, by EU coffee and biscuits.

Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels and Elizabeth Piper and William James in London; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Robin Pomeroy