Britain started formal talks to leave the European Union today, seeking a deal "like no other in history" despite entering deeply difficult negotiations through a badly weakened government.
A year after Britain's game-changing referendum, Brexit Secretary David Davis arrived in Brussels to launch talks he hoped would produce a ''new, deep and special partnership'' with the EU in the interest of Britons and all Europeans. Beaming as he met the European Union's chief negotiator Michel Barnier at the EU executive's Berlaymont headquarters, the veteran campaigner for Britain to quit the bloc said he aimed for a ''positive and constructive'' tone in the talks, adding: ''There is more that unites us than divides us.''
Barnier, a former French minister, has voiced impatience in the past that Britain has taken nearly a year to open talks. Looking, according to Reuters, more sombre than his British counterpart, he said he hoped they could agree a format and timetable on Monday. His priority, he said, was to clear up the uncertainties which last June's Brexit vote had created. He and Davis are due to give a joint news conference in the evening.
At stake in hugely complex talks that are expected to conclude by March 2019 is not just Britain's future but a western political order that would be badly shaken by a failure to reach a deal.
But the situation is very different from 12 months ago when the Brexiteers were riding high, with Prime Minister Theresa May's entire approach being called into question after a disastrous election performance on 8 June.
Almost a year to the day since Britons shocked themselves and their neighbours by voting on 23 June 2016 to cut loose from their main trading partner (See: It's Brexit as UK votes to leave European Union), and nearly three months since Prime Minister Theresa May locked them into a two-year countdown to Brexit in March 2019, almost nothing about the future is clear. Even May's own immediate political survival is in doubt, 10 days after she lost her majority in an election.
Officials on both sides play down expectations for what can be achieved in one day. EU diplomats hope this first meeting, and a Brussels summit on Thursday and Friday where May will encounter – but not negotiate with – fellow EU leaders, can improve the atmosphere after some spiky exchanges. Davis's agreement to Monday's agenda led some EU officials to believe that May's government may at last be coming around to Brussels' view of how negotiations should be run.
"While there is a long road ahead, our destination is clear - a deep and special partnership between the UK and the EU. A deal like no other in history," Davis said in a statement as he headed into the talks. "I look forward to beginning work on that new future."
Britain already appears to have capitulated to the EU's insistence that talks first focus on three key divorce issues, before moving onto the future EU-UK relationship and a possible trade deal.
Those issues are Britain's exit bill, estimated by Brussels at around €100 billion, the rights of three million EU nationals living in Britain and one million Britons on the continent, and the status of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
"Sitting down for a first formal negotiation round is something in and of itself," an EU source told AFP.
Time running out
An increasingly concerned EU has been pushing London to hurry up, with time running out for a deal and three months already passed since May triggered the two-year Article 50 EU exit process.
Today's talks are likely to focus on the practical details of timings for the coming months, with the big, divisive issues left aside for now, officials said.
May herself will also have a chance to update the other 27 EU leaders on her Brexit plans at a summit in Brussels on Thursday.
Many in Brussels fear that London has no real strategy, with May under pressure at home, still trying to close a deal with a conservative Northern Ireland party to stay in power, and facing criticism for her handling of the aftermath of a devastating tower block fire.
While ''Brexiteers'' like Davis have strongly backed May's proposed clean break with the single market and customs union, finance minister Philip Hammond and others have this month echoed calls by businesses for less of a ''hard Brexit'' and retaining closer customs ties.
With discontent in europhile Scotland and troubled Northern Ireland, which faces a new EU border across the divided island, Brexit poses new threats to the integrity of the United Kingdom.
It will test the ingenuity of thousands of public servants racing against the clock to untangle 44 years of EU membership before Britain is out, 649 days from now, on 30 March 2019. For the officials sitting down on Monday, at least on the EU side, a major worry is Britain crashing out into a limbo, with no deal. For that reason, Brussels wants as a priority to guarantee rights for three million EU citizens in Britain and be paid tens of billions of euros it says London will owe on its departure.
With a further million British expatriates in the EU, May too wants a deal on citizens' rights, though the two sides are some way apart. Agreeing to pay a ''Brexit bill'' may be more inflammatory.
Brussels is also resisting British demands for immediate talks on a future free trade arrangement. In any case, EU officials say, London no longer seems sure of what trade arrangements it will ask for. But Union leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, are also determined not to make concessions to Britain that might encourage others to follow.
When 52 per cent of British voters opted for Brexit, some feared for the survival of a Union battered by the euro crisis and divided in its response to chaotic immigration. The election of the fervently europhile Macron, and his party's sweep of the French parliament on Sunday, has revived optimism in Brussels.