Brexit negotiations kick off almost a year after referendum

A terms-of-reference document agreed by the EU's Michel Barnier and Britain's David Davis said further talks would be held in the weeks starting on July 17, Aug 28, Sept 18 and Oct 9. The British industry and public opinion, not to mention members of the British government are having second thoughts on the notion of a "hard Brexit", while Prime Minister Theresa May is no longer the undisputed leader of the Conservative Party and can not play a unifying role.

Adding to what Queen Elizabeth II called the "sombre national mood" have been three terrorist attacks in three months and a fire in a London tower block in which 58 people are presumed dead. Newspaper reports suggest some in her party are already considering ways to topple her, with Davis mentioned as a possible successor.

Economic data is beginning to lend extra weight to the argument for a softer approach to Brexit. If the European Union balked at her demands, then she would walk away without a deal, she declared.

Barnier said after welcoming Davis that it was important to tackle uncertainties caused by Brexit. More than 80 percent of them voted in the election for a party that advocated ditching the single market, while 77 percent told polling company YouGov that they wanted out. On the opposite side is Michel Barnier, the French former foreign minister who is the European Commission's chief negotiator.

Ms May's election debacle has revived feuding over Europe among Conservatives that her predecessor David Cameron hoped to end by calling the referendum and leaves European Union leaders unclear on her plan for a "global Britain" which a lot of them regard as pure folly.

The Brexit Secretary said: "The position hasn't changed".

May's ultimate dilemma, however, is that regardless of what she seeks, it will be the rest of the European Union that determines the shape of Brexit.

That means denying May an easy ride.

"We must first tackle the uncertainties caused by Brexit", Barnier said, citing the rights of European Union citizens in Britain and the possible impact on the open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Only once "sufficient progress" is made on such topics will Barnier accede to talks turning to trade and the "bold and ambitious" pact May wants. "We want both sides to emerge strong and prosperous, capable of projecting our shared European values, leading in the world, and demonstrating our resolve to protect the security of our citizens".

May's chief problem may again lie more at home than overseas.

Unite assistant general secretary Tony Burke said: "It's absolutely clear that the EU team, Jean-Claude Juncker [president of the European Commission] and Barnier, have their ducks in a row, and it looks from our point of view that we in the United Kingdom are going to be incredibly weak because of the weakness of government". But any concessions on immigration or money to win access risk inflaming hard-line euroskeptics as well as the popular press. The "cliff edge" businesses fear will have been stepped over.

The negotiations have been called the most complex in Britain's history as it unravels 44 years of membership and its threat to walk out with no deal in place has anxious European capitals.

Meantime, the clock is ticking.

Mr Hammond also said that while he believed failure to reach a deal with the European Union "would be a very, very bad outcome for Britain", a possible worse outcome would be "a deal that is deliberately structured to suck the lifeblood out of our economy over a period of time".

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