EU leaders are expected to unite on a tough opening negotiating stance on Brexit at a special summit in Brussels on Saturday, when they will agree on whether to make Britain settle potential payments to the bloc before considering a new trade deal.

The heads of the remaining 27 countries will demand that Britain resolves the key divorce issues of citizens’ rights, the divorce bill and the border on the island of Ireland before any talks on a future trade deal between the UK and the EU can begin.

Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, whose members comprise the EU states, said on Saturday: “We all want a close and strong future relationship with the UK. There’s absolutely no question about it. But before discussing the future, we have to sort out our past. We will handle it with genuine care, but firmly. This is, I think, the only possible way to move forward.

“We also need solid guarantees for all citizens and their families who will be affected by Brexit, on both sides. This must be the number one priority for the EU and the UK.”

The EU has taken some confidence from the fact that the British prime minister has not recently repeated her claim that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, despite being pushed to do so by politicians in favour of a so-called hard Brexit.

“We are convinced that no deal is in no one’s interest. We appreciate the fact that the tone of the debate in the UK on this issue has changed,” said a senior EU official on Friday.

Asked to respond to claims from Theresa May, on the general election campaign trail, that member states were preparing to “line up to oppose us”, one senior EU diplomat admitted: “She’s right. She should not underestimate the commitment to unity.”

The leaders are also set to back automatic EU membership for Northern Ireland if it votes in the future to reunify with Ireland, and will call for Spain to have a say over any deal that affects Gibraltar in a document detailing the European council’s so-called negotiating “guidelines” which will set the broad political goals of the 27 states when talks start in June.

During a working lunch to approve the position drafted by officials, leaders will furthermore discuss for the first time the relocation of EU medical and banking agencies that are currently based in London. The European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, along with Tusk, is expected to offer an indication of the selection criteria that will be used to choose between the many states bidding.

The Irish presented their request over Northern Ireland and the implications of reunification in the future during a meeting of EU ambassadors last Wednesday, it is understood. “There was no discussion, because there was no need for a discussion”, an EU source said. “There is total agreement.”

The first of the key issues the EU guidelines say Britain must resolve, however, is the fate of 3 million EU citizens living in Britain and 1 million Britons on the continent, and what happens to their rights to work and claim benefits abroad.

Leaks suggest the leaders believe that any EU national who moves to the UK before the withdrawal date should have all the rights they would have expected in the past, including that of being able to enjoy permanent residency status once they have lived in the UK for five years, no matter when that period of residence begins.

The EU 27 will also call for action to avoid a “hard border” between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, amid fears that Brexit could undermine the peace process.

The most contentious issue of all is likely, however, to be Britain’s exit bill, estimated at around €60bn (£50.4bn), covering financial commitments made by the bloc while Britain was a member.

Only once “sufficient progress” has been made in the talks on these issues, will the European council countenance talks about the future relationship.

Asked what “sufficient progress” would mean in relation to the UK’s divorce bill, a senior EU diplomat said the European council’s guidelines were quite explicit about what would be expected and that there would be little “wiggle room”.

“In terms of financial liabilities they go beyond the withdrawal date,” the source said, adding that it would be unthinkable, for example, for the UK to no longer be liable for EU loans that go wrong decades down the line. “I think it is going to be a rather difficult discussion in terms of what liabilities must be included and what can be excluded.

“You can expect a very ambitious position from the EU27 because if we admit that this and that can be excluded it follows there will be problems when we as a 27 have budget discussions in the future.

“I think we should expect a tough line on that issue and it is certainly something the nations will demand from the chief negotiator [Michel Barnier]. We will present clear limits in terms of wriggle room”.

The guidelines state: “A single financial settlement – including issues resulting from the MFF [the multi-annual financial framework that sets the budget for the next five years] as well as those related to the European Investment Bank (EIB), the European Development Fund (EDF) and the European Central Bank (ECB) – should ensure that the union and the United Kingdom both respect the obligations resulting from the whole period of the UK membership in the union.

“The settlement should cover all commitments as well as liabilities, including contingent liabilities.”

Comments are closed.