Brexit Negotiators Start Talking Trade With Progress Sluggish

(Bloomberg) -- The first formal meeting between the U.K. and the European Union on their post-Brexit relationship ended with little in the way of serious progress.

Senior officials from the British government’s Brexit department and their counterparts from the European Commission picked over the guidelines for future ties that the EU’s 27 remaining leaders published last month, said a person familiar with the talks. That document acts as a starting point for a more detailed agreement on post-2020 relations that the two sides hope to finalize before late-October.

But EU officials say they need far more detail about the U.K.’s position on the future before negotiations can begin in earnest and describe what they’ve heard so far as unacceptable cherry-picking of some parts of EU membership.

They also maintain that there’s still time for the government to change its mind, in particular over whether to pull out of the bloc’s customs union. While that’s a key part of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit policy, the U.K.’s upper house voted against the move Wednesday.

EU officials explained the thinking behind the guidelines and the two teams also discussed how to prioritize topics to be discussed over the coming weeks, according to the person who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are private.

They aim to reach agreement in matters including trade in goods and services, regulatory standards in areas such as food safety and tax policy and the exchange of personal data.

The agreement on future relations will come in the form of a non-binding “political declaration” and will form the basis of fully-fledged trade negotiations -- once the U.K. is out of the EU and in an already-agreed 21-month transition period from March 2019.

In addition to trying to get agreement on the future, negotiators also discussed unresolved issues connected to the U.K.’s withdrawal, in particular how to keep the Irish border invisible if Britain quits the customs union.

Earlier, EU President Donald Tusk told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, that it was Britain’s responsibility to help come up with a solution for the Irish border because “the U.K.’s decision on Brexit has caused the problem.”

“Without a solution there will be no withdrawal agreement and no transition,” he said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.