Britain's Davis in first talks with EU's 'Monsieur Brexit'

Brexit minister David Davis held his first talks on Monday with the European Commission’s top negotiator Michel Barnier on how to tackle Britain’s divorce from the EU.
Brexit minister David Davis held his first talks on Monday with the European Commission’s top negotiator Michel Barnier on how to tackle Britain’s divorce from the EU. PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Brexit minister David Davis held his first talks on Monday with the European Commission's top negotiator Michel Barnier on how to tackle Britain's divorce from the EU.

The pair both insisted that the "courtesy coffee" in Brussels lasting about half an hour did not mark a formal start to negotiations, saying that would have to wait until Britain formally triggers the exit process.

"I want to begin the work of ensuring we have a positive, strong and productive relationship with our closest neighbours," Davis said in a statement about the talks with Barnier in Brussels.

Frenchman Barnier, a former European Commissioner, said on Twitter in French and English that his British counterpart had asked for the meeting.

"This morning courtesy visit from David Davis at his request. No negotiation without notification. My work is now focused on EU27. #Brexit", Barnier tweeted.

Officials said they were not aware which language the talks were conducted in. Last month Barnier said the official language for the Brexit negotiations had yet to be decided, denying reports he had insisted they be in his native French.

European Union leaders have ruled out any formal Brexit negotiations before Britain invokes Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty, the official exit procedure, following its June vote to leave the 28-nation bloc.

Davis's ministry, the Department for Exiting the European Union, said that Davis wanted to "reestablish their relationship", having both known each other when they were Europe ministers in the 1990s.

"They agreed that they would work towards an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU once the UK has notified the European Council of its intention to withdraw," the ministry said.

Davis will head to Strasbourg in France on Tuesday to meet the European Parliament's Brexit pointman Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister, the Davis's spokesman said.

The ministry also said that Brussels and Strasbourg visits would be "the first of a series of visits across the EU".

Prime Minister Theresa May has promised to invoke Article 50 by the end of March, which will start a two-year countdown for Britain's exit.

But she has revealed little about what kind of deal she is aiming for, saying only that she wanted to cut EU migrant numbers and retain access for British businesses to Europe's single market.

EU leaders have said the two aims are incompatible, while a senior official involved in the negotiation said last week that the two-year timescale is also likely to be too short for arranging a full deal for new trade arrangements.

In comments widely interpreted as referring to a possible transitional arrangement with Brussels, May told business leaders in London on Monday: "We don't want a cliff-edge".