BRUSSELS – European leaders agreed to advance Brexit negotiations but called on U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May to tell them quickly what her government wants from a future trade agreement so serious talks can start in March.
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A week after reaching an agreement on the terms of Britain's departure from the bloc, EU leaders decided Friday afternoon to allow talks to progress to the bloc's future relationship with the U.K.
That will immediately open up an intense debate in the U.K. government and Mrs. May's Conservative Party about Britain's economic rules after Brexit.
"Today is an important step on the road to delivering a smooth and orderly Brexit and forging our deep and special future partnership," Mrs. May responded on Twitter.
However, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said the next step is for the U.K. to say "very clearly what it wants" from a future trade agreement with the bloc.
"I think if this happens in the next few weeks, we can start (talks) in earnest and by March we can have a very clear European position."
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The U.K. government has been divided over what sort of relationship it wants with the EU, and what compromises pro-Brexit forces are willing to make to maintain close trade ties with the bloc.
Mrs. May is set to hold the first of what is expected to be several cabinet meetings on Tuesday to decide the shape of Britain's demands for a future trade agreement.
Until now, the government has been clear it wants Britain to leave the EU's single market and customs union, and to narrow the influence in Britain of EU courts.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Friday that if Britain persisted with those red lines, the economic consequences could be "huge." He said leaving the single market would place the U.K.'s financial sector -- which would lose its ability to operate automatically across the bloc -- at a "considerable disadvantage."
Mrs. May has in recent months struggled to quell dissension from members of her top team, made up of both pro- and anti-EU politicians.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, one of the leaders of the campaign to leave the EU, in September undercut a major Brexit speech Mrs. May by laying out his own Brexit vision, including a definitive break from EU rules. Senior officials have also clashed over immigration policy and over whether Britain should accept all of its current EU obligations during a two-year post-Brexit transition.
The fundamental question the cabinet will face is to determine how closely Britain plans to align itself with EU economic rules and standards in the future. Close alignment could help deliver a solid trade accord and may ease other challenges, like how to avoid a hard border with Ireland.
Supporters of a clean break with the EU argue that only through a shift away from the bloc's rules can Britain truly regain control of its future and hope to start locking in the kind of trade deals Britain will need to lock in once it leaves the bloc.
Mrs. May hasn't said where she stands on the issue. Officials say she has been very careful to keep her views largely private.
Shortly after the leaders' decision to advance talks, the bloc released negotiating guidelines that fixed a timeline. They said formal talks on a transition can begin in January but that negotiations on the future trade agreement must await until March, when leaders will give a more detailed negotiating mandate to the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.
European Council President Donald Tusk said Friday that there could be informal, exploratory talks in coming weeks to help provide clarity ahead of the formal trade talks. However, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said "the real negotiations" would start only after March.
Britain's EU partners will also start debating their main demands for the talks. European officials said that could test the unity the bloc has thus far kept over Brexit, forcing the EU to choose their top economic priorities, which vary by country.
European officials also warned that any backsliding from the U.K.'s divorce promises could halt talks, including Britain's pledge to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, an EU stalwart.
The bloc wants to rapidly conclude a draft text that would eventually convert the divorce terms into legal commitments.
On Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron said the bloc's priorities for the second phase of negotiations were "solidarity with Ireland, as we showed in phase one, and the integrity of the single market." EU leaders have been clear that Britain's access to the EU's markets will be constrained if their rules diverge sharply or if they place restrictions on EU workers moving to the U.K.
--Valentina Pop and Emre Peker contributed to this article.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 15, 2017 15:30 ET (20:30 GMT)