The UK and EU reached a deal on three main sticking points in the Brexit talks on Friday, allowing the negotiations to move on to the next phase.
EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker signaled that enough progress had been made on the status of the Irish border, the rights of citizens affected by Brexit and Britain’s financial settlement when it leaves the EU to launch talks on a post-Brexit UK-EU trade agreement.
“Today I am hopeful that we are now all moving towards the second phase of these challenging negotiations”, he told a televised news conference in Brussels.
He said the ‘breakthrough we needed’ had been achieved after months of talks.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said he recommended that the negotiations should move on and described the agreement as a ‘personal success’ for Prime Minister Theresa May.
“The most difficult challenge is still ahead”, he added, referring to the transition period leading up to the UK’s departure by March 2019.
Speaking alongside May, who flew to Brussels early Friday, Juncker said there had been compromises on both sides.
Welcoming the end of the first phase, May tweeted: “I very much welcome the prospect of moving ahead to the next phase of the Brexit talks on trade and security”.
‘End of beginning’
Under the first phase deal there will be no ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland while EU citizens in the UK and British nationals in the EU will have their rights protected.
A joint report said the UK would pay the EU an amount that is ‘fair to the British taxpayer’ when it leaves the bloc.
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said there had been ‘real progress’ but warned of further hurdles in future negotiations.
Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said the deal had ‘achieved all that we set out to achieve’, broadcaster RTE reported.
He added: “This is not the end, but it is the end of the beginning”.
The agreement came after painstaking work following a delay caused by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland earlier this week.
The DUP, which props up May’s Conservative Party in parliament, rejected an agreement between London and Dublin to retain EU rules in Northern Ireland as a way of resolving the border issue.
“There is still a major debate within the Cabinet, parliament, the Conservative Party and other parties about the nature of any regulatory alignment with the EU that may be required post-Brexit”, the DUP said in a statement.
“We believe that the paper could pre-judge the outcome of that debate.”
The initial deal is expected to be signed off at an EU summit next week before the second phase of talks begins.