Brexit: UK must settle issues of 'people, money and Ireland' before EU talks can begin, says Donald Tusk
The UK must must settle the issues of "people, money and Ireland" before talks on negotiating a future relationship with the EU can begin, the president of the European Council Donald Tusk has said.
Leaders of the other 27 nations will meet on Saturday to agree their negotiating strategy for Brexit.
Donald Tusk said discussions about future relations can only start once "we have achieved sufficient progress" on key exit issues.
He said: "In other words, before discussing our future, we must first sort out our past."
The EU "will not discuss our future relations" with the UK until "sufficient progress" has been made on key issues, Mr Tusk said.
As well as outstanding financial obligations, a deal on the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and Britons living in the rest of the bloc must be reached.
Mr Tusk also called for action to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The council president said this approach was "not only a matter of tactics, but - given the limited time-frame we have to conclude the talks - it is the only possible approach".
In a letter to EU leaders ahead of the meeting on Saturday, he wrote: "Only once we collectively determine in the European Council that sufficient progress has been made on all these issues, will we be in a position to hold preparatory talks on the future relationship with the UK.
"I would like us to unite around this key principle during the upcoming summit, so that it is clear that progress on people, money and Ireland must come first.
"And we have to be ready to defend this logic during the upcoming negotiations."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood welcomed Mr Tusk's comments.
He said: "Theresa May and the Tories may have demonstrated a tin ear to the discordant voices in Northern Ireland and Scotland but it’s clear that we have strong friends in the European Union.
"Donald Tusk’s clear support for the spirit and the structures of the Good Friday Agreement is a powerful statement that maintaining progress in Ireland is a priority for Europe.
"Over the course of the last number of months, SDLP MPs and our party negotiators have pressed the British Government for an admission that Northern Ireland is the only place in these islands with an automatic path back into the European Union. The British Brexit Secretary has now admitted that the primacy of the Principle of Consent means that people here can vote to join a sovereign United Ireland within the European Union.
"As the tectonic plates of our constitutional landscape, in Ireland, Britain and Europe, continue to shift, we should look to the Good Friday Agreement as an anchor of stability. An endorsement of the principle of consent and the path to re-entry to the European Union as part of a United Ireland by EU leaders would give further weight to that anchor."