BRUSSELS: European Union leaders vowed on Saturday to stand shoulder to shoulder behind their negotiating team during the divorce proceedings with Britain and warned that any demands from Prime Minister Theresa May will be dealt with "firmly."
The 27 EU leaders in Brussels finalized the cornerstones of their negotiating stance within minutes of starting a short summit, a month after May triggered two years of exit talks on March 29. The negotiations themselves are to start shortly after snap elections in Britain on June 8.
"Guidelines adopted unanimously. EU27 firm and fair political mandate for the #Brexit talks is ready," EU Council President Donald Tusk tweeted.
The guidelines point out there can be no discussions on a future relationship before some key issues like how much Britain owes the bloc are sufficiently agreed, the issue of the Irish border with Britain is settled and, Tusk said, that the welfare of citizens and families living in each other's nations will be the priority once the talks start.
The guidelines countered British hopes to have future trade relations running in synch all through the talks. Tusk said however that "before discussing the future, we have sort out our past and we handle it with genuine care — but firmly."
And some were already considering how to deal with British tactics. "Maybe the British government will do its utmost to split the 27 nations and it is trap we need to avoid," said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel.
Ever since the June 23, 2016, referendum decided the departure of Britain from the bloc, the 27 have shown a rare exceptional front in the face of a nation split because of the momentous decision it had taken.
Now, the EU is also bent on making Britain pay the divorce bill, which some EU officials have put as high as 60 billion euros ($65 billion). "If you are no longer part of a club, it has consequences. A Brexit for free is not possible," Michel said.
To kick off the negotiations, Tusk wants to center on the millions of people living on each other's side who would be immediately affected.
All sides "need solid guarantees for all citizens and their families who will be affected by Brexit on both sides. This must be the No. 1 priority," Tusk said. Some 3 million citizens from the 27 nations live in Britain while up to 2 million Britons live on the continent, all facing uncertainly on such issues as welfare and employment.
Tusk said that sustained unity of the 27 will help May since she will have political certainty throughout the talks.
"Our unity is also in the U.K.'s interest," he said. "I feel strong support from all the EU institutions, including the European Parliament, as well as all the 27 member states. I know this is something unique and I am confident it will not change."
Over the past years, the bloc has often been bitterly divided over issues like the financial crisis and how to deal with hundreds of thousands of migrants entering the bloc.
At their summit, the leaders are set to acknowledge that Northern Ireland could join the bloc in the future if its people vote to unite with EU member state Ireland.
Two European officials said a statement on the issue is likely to be added to the minutes of the summit, to be held without May. The officials asked not to be identified because the summit was being prepared.
Future relations between Ireland and Britain, including how the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland would work with the U.K. outside the bloc, have emerged as a key problem to be addressed during the Brexit talks.