Europe, Britain hail breakthrough

BRUSSELS — Britain and the European Union hailed a breakthrough Friday that allows them to begin talks on their post-Brexit relations without answering some key questions about how their divorce will play out.

With pressure building on British Prime Minister Theresa May’s fragile government, the sides agreed on the last sticking point in Britain’s divorce terms: the border between EU member Ireland and the United Kingdom’s Northern Ireland.

They both accepted that the border must remain open once Britain leaves the bloc in 2019, although they left it unclear how that would happen in practice. After a hectic night of phone diplomacy, the Northern Ireland party blocking a deal — and propping up May’s Conservative government — said it was satisfied.

Negotiators also reached a broad agreement on the other divorce terms, which the EU had required before it would allow the talks to move on to the weighty questions of future relations, including trade, which had been keeping businesses and financial markets on edge.

The sides agreed on the rights of both British citizens in EU countries and EU nationals in the U.K. The also ironed out the terms of Britain’s financial obligations to the bloc, which could total some 50 billion euros ($59 billion), though the exact size of the bill cannot be calculated.

Just after dawn, with the British flag flying outside its headquarters, the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, said it was finally satisfied with May’s proposals and recommended that the talks move to the next phase. Leaders of Britain’s 27 EU partner countries are expected to ratify that decision at a meeting on Thursday in Brussels.

“I believe that we have now made the breakthrough that we needed,” Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said during a news conference with May. EU lawmakers, who must ratify any full Brexit agreement, also endorsed the deal.

The arrangement buys time, particularly for May’s government, which EU negotiators have complained of being indecisive in what it wants amid an internal fight over the direction the country should take.

A majority of British voters decided 18 months ago to leave the EU, but this first phase of talks — focused on preliminary issues that many had expected to be resolved quickly — has dragged on amid disputes over the divorce bill and the Irish border.

A final Brexit agreement must be found by next autumn, to leave time for national European parliaments to endorse it.

If EU leaders endorse this deal, Brexit negotiations are likely to resume in early January, officials say.

Still, the first phase is not really over. Friday’s deal seems to simply delay decisions on some key points, including how to keep the Irish border open.

Britain is promising to withdraw from the European tariff-less single market and customs union while saying there will be no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland — although the former will remain within the EU single market and the latter in the U.K.

So complex are the issues that experts will try to resolve the contradictions in a separate strand of talks over the 10 months of negotiating time that remains.