May confident of progress as EU leaders agree to move Brexit talks on to next stage
Theresa May has declared she is "well on the road" to delivering Brexit after leaders of the 27 remaining member states agreed to allow negotiations to proceed to their second phase.
The Prime Minister made clear she wanted talks on post-Brexit trade relations with the EU to begin "straight away", as the UK continues with its goal of negotiating a deal which can be signed immediately after the official date of departure on March 29, 2019.
Her target was described as "realistic" but "dramatically difficult" to achieve by the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk.
Mrs May (right) was boosted by the terms of a statement agreed by the EU27 at the European Council summit in Brussels, which left the door open for "exploratory contacts" early in the new year to allow Brussels to gain greater "clarity" on the UK's ambitions.
But the formal process is likely to run to a slower timetable, with official EU guidelines for trade talks not due to be approved until March 2018, when European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said the "real negotiations" would begin.
And the EU27 confirmed Brussels' position that a final trade deal cannot be signed until the UK has formally left.
DUP MEP Diane Dodds last night welcomed the move.
"This is another tangible stride towards the UK's exit from the European Union," she said.
"Today's agreement brings us to the crux of negotiations and there should be no further delays on either the issue of the implementation period or the crucial new trading relationship. All sides have committed to a strictly-time limited implementation period. The priority should now be to thrash out these arrangements in a swift and sensible fashion."
The four-page document sets out the process for agreeing the terms of a transition period, expected to last two years after the date of Brexit. And it makes clear that the EU expects the UK to observe all of its rules - including on freedom of movement - and accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice during this time.
It also sets up a potential clash with London over Mrs May's hopes of negotiating early trade agreements with countries outside the EU, stating firmly that the UK will stay in the single market and customs union during transition and will "continue to comply with EU trade policy", which bars deals by individual states.
Mrs May told the Press Association that the move to the second phase of talks represented "an important step on the road to delivering the smooth and orderly Brexit that people voted for in June of last year".
She said the UK would be "beginning the talks about our future relationship straight away", adding: "There is still more to do but we are well on the road to delivering a Brexit that will make Britain strong, prosperous and secure."
Asked if Mrs May's goal of concluding negotiations by March 2019 was achievable, Mr Tusk said: "It is still realistic, and of course dramatically difficult. For sure, the second phase will be more demanding, more challenging than the first phase."
Mr Juncker said he was "convinced" a legally binding Withdrawal Agreement will be signed by next October, to allow time for ratification by the European Parliament and MPs in Westminster.
Mrs May faces another setback next week, with backbench Tories preparing to rebel again over the March 2019 Brexit date in law.