Brexit negotiations begin next week

AFP . London | Update:

Pros and cons of possible models for a post-Brexit relationship between the UK and the EU. AFPBritain's finance minister said Friday that jobs and growth should be the priority when Brexit negotiations begin next week, indicating that the weakened government in London might be softening its tone with Brussels.

Philip Hammond wants economic concerns to take centre-stage when Britain starts talks Monday for leaving the European Union, contrasting with a previous emphasis on cutting immigration.

With Prime Minister Theresa May still working to shore up a deal with a small Northern Irish party to prop up her Conservative government after she lost her parliamentary majority in the June 8 election, Hammond's comments could be a sign that London is easing back its approach to Brexit.

"We should be protecting jobs, protecting economic growth and protecting prosperity," Hammond said as he arrived for a meeting of EU finance ministers in Luxembourg.

"As we enter negotiations next week we will do so in a spirit of sincere cooperation, taking a pragmatic approach, trying to find a solution that works" for Britain and the EU, he said.

After the general election fiasco, May hopes to secure the backing of the ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party, which would add the DUP's 10 seats to the Conservatives' 317 in the 650-member House of Commons.

May spent Thursday in talks with each of the five main political parties from Northern Ireland, including the DUP, aimed at getting a power-sharing executive running in the province before a June 29 deadline.

The talks also gave her the opportunity to try to reassure the other parties that a tie-up with the DUP would not compromise Britain's impartiality in the delicate Northern Ireland peace process.

DUP leader Arlene Foster insisted that any deal with the Conservatives would not undermine the province's peace accords.
Following talks in Dublin with the new Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, she said that reaching a "sensible" Brexit had been the focus of their talks.

"We want to see a Brexit that works for everybody, not just for Northern Ireland," she said.

- Exit talks open -
The announcement of the formal start of discussions was agreed on Thursday between Britain's Brexit minister David Davis and the European Commission's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

Monday's negotiations are to open at 11:00am in Brussels (0900 GMT) with 90 minutes of talks between Barnier and Davis, followed by a working lunch between the pair and a press conference.

Working groups were to take place later to focus on three key areas -- the status of EU citizens living in Britain and British citizens living in the EU; the divorce bill for Britain; and the status of the Northern Irish border with Ireland.

The Liberal Democrats, the fourth-biggest group in the British parliament, urged May to form a cross-party committee to negotiate Brexit.

"If the government cannot even secure a deal with the DUP, how on earth can they get a deal with the EU?" asked MP Alistair Carmichael.

- Jobs depend on UK line -
The prospect of Brexit has sent a wave of concern through Britain's business sector.
London-based banking giant HSBC said Friday that it would keep more jobs in Britain depending on the government's approach to Brexit.

HSBC, which has 43,000 employees in Britain, said in January that it was planning to move "activities covered specifically by European financial regulation" to the EU, which would shift about 1,000 jobs out of the UK.

"Depending on a hard or soft Brexit, that number might be slightly less than that, so it's going to be updated all the time," its UK chief executive Ian Stuart told BBC television.

"We're still in uncharted waters today and we don't know exactly how it's going to look, so we've got to plan ahead."
Meanwhile Prince Andrew, Queen Elizabeth II's second son, who works to encourage British economic growth, warned of years of "uncertainty and difficulty and upheaval" following Brexit.

But as the first senior royal to discuss Brexit, he claimed companies were eyeing fresh opportunities in non-EU markets once Britain leaves the bloc.

"In my experience recently, businesses that look over the garden fence have gone: 'Hmm, (the) grass is not quite as dark and unforgiving as you might expect'," Andrew told the BBC.

"And actually, getting over the fence, there might be some fresh grass out there."

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