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Battle lines drawn for tough Brexit talks: analysts

Minutes after Britain fired the Brexit starting gun, the battle lines were already drawn for two years of tough negotiations with the EU, analysts said Wednesday.

[BRUSSELS] Minutes after Britain fired the Brexit starting gun, the battle lines were already drawn for two years of tough negotiations with the EU, analysts said Wednesday.

Britain immediately clashed with Germany, the most powerful EU state, and Brussels when it called for talks on the terms of the divorce to run in parallel with those on the future relationship between Britain and the bloc.

The main issues in the divorce are Britain's multi-billion-euro exit bill, the rights of European citizens living in Britain and vice versa, and the fate of the border in troubled Northern Ireland.

In another potential flashpoint down the road, British Prime Minister Theresa May said that security cooperation with the European Union was partly dependent on getting a good Brexit deal.

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"There is a good likelihood that the road could be very bumpy," Janis Emmanouilidis, an analyst with the European Policy Centre think tank in Brussels, told AFP.

Mr Emmanouilidis said it is impossible for Britain to both disentangle itself from the 28-nation bloc and then establish a new relationship with the EU within two years.

"What they're asking for is wishful thinking," Mr Emmanouilidis said.

'A serious problem'

Brexit quickly got off to a rocky start.

In her letter to EU president Donald Tusk notifying him of Britain's intention to leave, Mrs May pushed for parallel talks.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted the negotiations first determine Britain's exit before talks on a new relationship can begin. The remaining 27 EU leaders issued a statement calling for an "orderly" divorce first.

"If the British say they do not intend to close the exit deal without having tied up an agreement on a future relationship, it is a serious problem," Ignacio Molina from the Real Instituto Elcano in Madrid told AFP.

Analysts said however that it bode well that Mrs May had taken a conciliatory stance on many of the key divorce issues.

Catherine Barnard, professor of EU law at the University of Cambridge, said it was "striking" that Mrs May insisted on reaching an early agreement about the rights of the three million EU citizens in Britain and the one million British citizens across the Channel.

Mrs May meanwhile barely mentioned the 60 billion euro (S$90.06 billion) bill that the EU says Britain must pay for outstanding financial commitments, apparently playing down a toxic issue.

Mr Emmanouilidis however predicted this would still be difficult.

"It could even function as a catalyst to push the process even quicker, closer to the cliff edge," he said.

'Expect many more dramas'

All this is before the EU and Britain move on to their future relationship.

Despite warm words on both sides about how Britain is leaving the EU but not leaving Europe, Ms Barnard said the post-divorce deal would be even harder than arrangements for the actual split.

If Britain and the EU cannot agree on a trade deal, or at least a transitional arrangement as it leaves the bloc's single market, they will go back to costly and tariff-heavy World Trade Organisation rules.

Mrs May set many in Europe on edge when she warned that Britain, the biggest military power in the EU and a nuclear-armed Nato member, might hold back on security cooperation if it can't get a good deal.

"In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened," she wrote in her letter to Mr Tusk.

EU trade deals with other countries, for example Canada, have taken many years to finalise, in a sign of things to come.

Complicating things, while only a large majority of EU states need to approve the terms of divorce, there must be a unanimous agreement of all 27 remaining countries plus national and regional parliaments for the future relationship deal.

"You will have a lot of veto players on different sides. The potential for disruption is rather big," Mr Emmanouilidis said.

Jonathan Eyal, an analyst with the London-based Royal United Services Institute, said the one sure thing was more of the endless summits that the EU specialises in.

"Expect many more dramas and diplomats walking down red carpets in Brussels," he said.