BRUSSELS • European Union leaders endorsed a stiff set of divorce terms for Britain at a summit yesterday, rejoicing in a rare show of unity in adversity, but well aware that may start to fray once negotiations begin.
Meeting for the first time since British Prime Minister Theresa May formally triggered a two-year countdown to Brexit in late March, the 27 other EU leaders took just a minute as they sat down to lunch in Brussels to approve eight pages of negotiating guidelines hammered out by their diplomats over the past month.
"Guidelines adopted unanimously. EU27 firm and fair political mandate for the Brexit talks is ready," summit chair Donald Tusk tweeted.
Leaders applauded, officials said, after formally adopting, unmodified, the text drafted by their aides.
Those will bind Mr Michel Barnier, the bloc's chief Brexit negotiator, to seek a deal that secures the rights of three million EU expats living in Britain, ensures London pays tens of billions of euros Brussels thinks it will be owed, and avoids destabilising peace by creating a hard EU-UK border across the island of Ireland.
They also rule out discussing the free trade deal Mrs May wants, until they see progress on an agreement to the key withdrawal terms.
"Before discussing the future, we have to sort out our past," Mr Tusk said in comments echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said "substantive issues" must first be settled.
In a mark of how last year's Brexit vote called into question the unity of the UK itself, leaders will also offer Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny a pledge that if Northern Ireland, which voted against Brexit, ever unites with his country, it will automatically enter the EU.
French President Francois Hollande said "the aim of the summit is unity", and "there will inevitably be a price and a cost for Britain".
Mrs May last week accused the EU of ganging up on London, in a war of words with Dr Merkel, who said Britain had "illusions" about the talks. Yesterday, Dr Merkel said the EU wants "good relations" with Britain, but added that "we also want to defend, at 27, our common interests - so far we have done extremely well".
The most touchy issue of all is likely to be Britain's exit bill. This is estimated at around €40 billion (S$60.9 billion) to €60 billion, and mainly covers financial commitments made by the bloc while Britain was a member. The bill is politically toxic for Britain, but also risks causing divisions among EU states as they debate how to plug any holes in the bloc's budget.
Among possible differences between the EU27 countries: the priorities of poorer, eastern states are to secure residency rights for their many workers in Britain, and British money for the EU budget; Germany and others set store by a smooth transition to a new free trade agreement.
The EU leaders will also discuss for the first time the spoils of Brexit - the relocation of EU medical and banking agencies that are currently based in London.
In a further move that will rile London, the EU is also set to call for Spain to have a say over any deal that affects Gibraltar.
Senior officials in Brussels believe the risk of a breakdown in talks that could see Britain simply walk out into chaotic legal limbo in March 2019 has diminished since Mrs May wrote to Mr Tusk on March 29, recognising a need to compromise.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE