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Britain's May tries to warm the Brexit atmosphere with EU

LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Theresa May told European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday she wanted a “deep and special relationship” with the European Union, trying to warm the atmosphere before Brexit talks begin.

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After a dinner at her Downing Street official residence with the EU’s main Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, and his British counterpart, David Davis, both sides said the meeting was “constructive” but offered few details.

The four have in recent weeks been careful not to poison the atmosphere before the talks, leaving financial markets and business leaders to guess what the mood is as battle lines are drawn before the complex negotiations for Britain to leave the EU, following last June’s referendum vote to quit.

“The PM had a constructive meeting this evening with President Juncker of the European Commission,” a spokesperson for May said in a statement.

“Following the UK’s letter of notification under Article 50 (on its departure from the EU), she reiterated the UK’s commitment to achieving a deep and special partnership with the European Union.”

The cautious wording is in stark contrast to the early days of May’s premiership, when she riled EU leaders by taking a firmly pro-Brexit stance to win over her governing Conservative Party and, she said, to carry out the will of the people.

May is keeping her cards close to her chest before the talks, not wanting to give her hand away.

But she is letting members of her government speak out. Foreign minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday that while divorce talks with the EU could be so tough that “plaster may fall off the ceiling”, Britain would win a good deal.

Before the dinner, May’s spokesman said the prime minister would reiterate her Brexit plan which she set out in the letter triggering Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, but little was mentioned about an early election she has called for June 8.

The EU says it expects the talks to begin in earnest after that election - when May hopes to strengthen her parliamentary majority - and when she has confirmed her negotiating team, which is now led by Davis.

“President Juncker had a constructive meeting with Prime Minister May,” a Commission spokesperson said, adding that as well as Brexit, they addressed “issues of strategic interest”.

Reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Mark Heinrich and James Dalgleish