EU says divorce bill, citizens' rights focus of Brexit talks

By LORNE COOK and PAN PYLAS Markets Associated Press

Brexit negotiators will discuss Monday Britain's financial obligations to the European Union as the long, complicated and potentially perilous process of the U.K. leaving the bloc finally gets underway.

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The EU's executive Commission said in a statement Friday that the first round of negotiations in Brussels will be part of a "sequenced approach to the talks."

The EU has insisted that this sequence involve sorting out Britain's departure and urgent issues like the rights of citizens affected by Brexit before the shape of future ties or trade are discussed.

The unprecedented negotiations at the Commission's offices come almost exactly a year after Britons voted last June 23 to leave the EU. The talks must be completed and endorsed by parliaments by the end of March 2019.

The Commission said the high-priority issue of the shared border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and Ireland, an EU member, will also be discussed.

Both sides are keen to ensure that people and goods keep moving smoothly across the border and that nothing undermines the peace agreement that ended decades of bloody conflict in Northern Ireland.

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Britain's Department for Exiting the European Union denied that the country has given up on its aim of discussing all aspects of its departure and future relations simultaneously.

"Our view is that a withdrawal agreement and terms of the future relationship must be agreed alongside each other," the department said in a statement Friday. "We believe that the withdrawal process cannot be concluded without the future relationship also being taken into account."

In Luxembourg, Britain's finance minister said that protecting jobs and the economy should be the main focus in upcoming discussions.

At talks with his counterparts in the 28-country EU, Philip Hammond said his "clear view and I believe the view of the majority of people in Britain is that we should prioritize protecting jobs, protecting economic growth and protecting prosperity as we enter those negotiations and take them forward."

He wouldn't be drawn on whether he supported Britain's continued membership in the single market and said Prime Minister Theresa May's minority government will negotiate in a "pragmatic" manner, striving for a solution that works for both sides.

"I'm not going to give a blow by blow account of how we propose to take that discussion forward," he said. "We will negotiate in good faith but it is a negotiation, we recognize there will be an exchange of views and we will take that forward in a spirit of genuine cooperation."

London and Brussels will barely have 15 months to complete the negotiations if enough time is to be left for all sides, parliaments and institutions to endorse any agreement. The inconclusive elections in Britain have further complicated matters.

It's the first time a country has left the EU so the negotiators — led by former French government minister and EU commissioner Michel Barnier and Britain's David Davis — will also be navigating uncharted waters.

Britain's financial obligations are expected to amount to at least $64 billion, and could go over $100 million, although London has suggested it will not pay that much.

The divorce bill will involve its commitments to the EU's 2014-2020 budget, as well as ending its membership of EU institutions, banks and funds like the Turkey refugee facility. Other costs include the relocation of the EU's U.K. based medicine agency and banking authority.

More pressing is the issues of providing effective guarantees to some 5 million people — around 3 million EU citizens living in Britain plus almost 2 million Britons in Europe — who want to know what the future holds after Brexit.

They face massive uncertainty on health benefits, pensions, taxes, employment and education.

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Pylas reported from Luxembourg.