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May ‘well on road’ to Brexit delivery after EU state heads agree to next stage

The Prime Minister made clear she wanted talks on post-Brexit trade relations with the EU to begin “straight away”.

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 Donald Tusk, president of the European Council.

Meanwhile, her hopes of avoiding a second Commons defeat over Brexit also improved after senior Tory backbenchers from both the Leave and Remain factions appeared to be ready to back a compromise over Mrs May’s plan to write the date the UK leaves the European Union into law.

Mrs May 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.

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.

The EU27 confirmed Brussels’ position that a final trade deal cannot be signed until the UK has formally left.

The four-page document also sets out the process for agreeing the terms of a transition period expected to last two years after the date of Brexit.

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 set up a potential clash with London over Mrs May’s hopes of negotiating early trade agreements with countries outside the EU, stating firmly 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.

Speaking in her Maidenhead constituency, Mrs May told the Press Association 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 Britain 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.”

(PA Graphics)

With Cabinet ministers due to discuss their preferred “end state” relationship with Europe for the first time on Tuesday, pressure is mounting on Mrs May to deliver a detailed statement on her aims which the EU will regard as an adequate basis to enter swiftly into substantive talks.

Asked at a Brussels press conference whether 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 October, to allow time for ratification by the European Parliament and MPs in Westminster.

The Commission will consult member states on their priorities in a series of seminars early next year, he said, adding: “I think the real negotiations on the second phase will start in March next year. I cannot say when these negotiations will be concluded.”

A second humiliating Commons reverse now appears less likely as a compromise amendment tabled by senior MPs including Sir Oliver Letwin and Bernard Jenkin appeared to win over would-be rebels.

The Government is understood to be looking closely at the amendment, which would give ministers flexibility to change the day through regulations if MPs agree.

Paul Masterton, a potential Tory rebel who abstained in the defeat on Wednesday, said it was a “sensible amendment to the Withdrawal Bill that gives us flexibility on Brexit date if we need”.

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