European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, left, and European Council President Donald Tusk participate in a media conference at an EU summit in Brussels on April 29, 2017. EU leaders met on Saturday for the first time as the formal European Council of 27 to adopt guidelines for the upcoming Brexit negotiations. (Virginia Mayo / AP)
BRUSSELS – European Union leaders endorsed stiff divorce terms for Britain on Saturday and warned Britons to have "no illusions" about swiftly securing a new relationship to keep their access to EU markets.
At a Brussels summit marked by unusual harmony among the 27 leaders, there was a flash of the cross-Channel acrimony which some fear could wreck any deal when officials accused London of cynically vetoing some EU spending and demanded it back down or face disrupting the start of talks next month.
Meeting for the first time since Prime Minister Theresa May triggered the two-year countdown to Brexit in late March, her counterparts took just minutes as they sat down to lunch in Brussels to approve eight pages of negotiating guidelines hammered out by their diplomats over the past month.
They greeted the decision with applause, officials said.
The text will bind Michel Barnier, their chief negotiator, to seek a deal that secures the rights of 3 million EU expats living in Britain, ensures London pays tens of billions of euros Brussels thinks it will be owed, and avoids destabilizing peace by creating a hard EU-UK border across the island of Ireland.
"We are ready," Barnier said. "We are together."
With Barnier expecting to launch negotiations after the June 8 election May called to strengthen her position, the EU leaders also firmly ruled out discussing the free trade deal May wants until they see "significant progress" on key withdrawal terms.
"Before discussing the future, we have to sort out our past," summit chair Donald Tusk told reporters.
He criticized British politicians – who have included May herself – for speaking of a quick deal to reassure expatriates when the legal complexities required much more detailed talks.
"We need a serious British response," Tusk said.
In London, Britain's minister for leaving the European Union, David Davis, said he wanted the negotiations to be conducted in a "spirit of goodwill".
German Chancellor Angela Merkel repeated her concern that some in Britain had "illusions" about quick trade talks.
BRITISH "UNDERESTIMATE" DIFFICULTIES
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU chief executive, took an even more combative tone, saying his officials had identified a "cocktail" of 25 different legal issues to settle just regarding expatriate residence rights.
"I have the impression sometimes that our British friends – not all of them – underestimate the technical difficulties we have to face," he told reporters, three days after he and Barnier met May over dinner in London for "constructive" talks.
Raising publicly the Commission's irritation with Britain over its 11th-hour decision to withhold consent on Wednesday to some 6 billion euros (US$6.5 billion) in EU spending on approved programs, notably to handle the Mediterranean migrant crisis, Juncker warned that the issue could affect the start of talks.
British officials said the "reserve" imposed via a Tuesday night email on a package of measures due to have been approved by EU ambassadors on Wednesday morning was a simple procedural matter prompted by the "purdah" period before elections, during which ministers prefer not to take "sensitive" decisions.
Juncker was unimpressed: "It would facilitate the beginning of the negotiations if the UK were to be able to withdraw the reserve."
EU officials questioned British motives, saying it appeared unprecedented and affected policies which Britain had agreed during months of prior deliberation.
The EU considers it vital that Britain not be seen to profit from Brexit, to dissuade others from following suit.