Green light for second Brexit phase
EU leaders meeting in Brussels said on Friday that the way was clear for the opening of the second phase of Brexit negotiations with the UK.
European Council Donald Tusk announced the agreement on Twitter, at the same time congratulating British Prime Minister Theresa May on having brought the divorce settlement negotiations thus far.
"As for the framework for future relations, it is now time for internal EU 27 preparations and exploratory contacts with the UK to get more clarity on their vision," Tusk later said, referring to the 27 EU member states that will remain after Britain's departure.
Friday's approval gives May a welcome success after she lost a parliamentary vote over giving lawmakers the ultimate say on the final Brexit deal.
She showed her gratitude in a tweet that thanked the EU for "an important step" toward a "smooth and orderly Brexit."
Even harder second phase?
However, Friday's approval appears to be just one of many hurdles to be taken before Brexit occurs, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel telling a press conference following the summit that even more difficult work lay ahead.
"We have taken a good step forward. The second phase can begin — but with that, an even harder piece of work begins than what we had so far," she said, adding that the other EU nations had preserved their unity "wonderfully" up to now in the Brexit negotiations.
At the press conference, French President Emmanuel Macron also emphasized the way the EU 27 had held together.
"We were able to maintain the 27's unity, the integrity of the single market and the respect of common rules," he said, adding that the same principles would remain in the next phase of talks.
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The two sides agreed last week that enough progress had been made on key issues for negotiations to progress.
Those issues included the payment Britain must make to the bloc upon departure for its non-fulfillment of obligations, keeping the border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland open and protecting the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and vice versa.
Britain is planning to leave the EU in March 2019. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Friday that real negotiations on the second phase of Brexit talks would start in March 2018.
Continued division over migration
The EU summit in Brussels, which ends on Friday, has also seen the east-west divide over migration to the bloc continue, with eastern states remaining firm in their stance against refugee redistribution quotas that have been agreed to by a majority of member nations.
The quotas are seen as a measure of assistance to countries such as Greece and Italy, which have seen most of the migrants come to their shores over the Mediterranean.
The EU is seeking to reform its policy on asylum before an expected renewed influx of migrants and refugees in summer next year when weather improves to allow safer voyages across the Mediterranean from Africa.
Strengthening external borders
However, the four eastern European countries making up the so-called Visegrad group — the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — were fully behind an EU project aimed at enhancing border protection in Libya, which has now become the main launchpad for migrants and refugees wanting to come to Europe.
They offered €35 million ($41 million) to assist the Italian-led project in a move meant to demonstrate that they are actively working on solutions to the migration issue.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said that the EU's policy of defending its outer borders was the one that had "worked and operated well on the ground, delivered the result we have expected."
The summit has also approved an extension to economic sanctions imposed on Russia over its role in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, as well as the establishment of a joint European defense force.
tj/ng (AP, Reuters)