As recently as last week the government had insisted that trade talks could take place at the same time as discussion of citizens’ rights, the Northern Irish border, and financial settlements. And just over a month ago, Mr Davis said dealing with the issue of how the talks would unfold would be the “row of the summer”.
But the point was effectively conceded before talks began, with Mr Davis yesterday accepting an EU timetable set out last week, which makes clear trade will only be discussed once “sufficient progress” is made on citizenship, Northern Ireland and a “single financial settlement” of as much as £88 billion. Mr Davis and the EU Commission chief negotiator Michel Barnier met in Brussels in the first of what will be at least a year of monthly meetings, both promising to hold talks in a “constructive” spirit.
But Mr Barnier added that he was “not in a frame of mind to make concessions”, and suggested the UK would have to face up to “substantial” consequences of leaving the EU.
“The United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union, it is not the other way around,” Mr Barnier said.
“The UK is going to leave the European Union, single market and the customs union, not the other way around.
“So, we each have to assume our responsibility and the consequences of our decisions. And the consequences are substantial.”
Theresa May will present her plan for securing the rights of EU citizens in the UK and Britons living in Europe at a meeting of EU heads of government on Thursday.
A detailed paper will then be published on Monday, Mr Davis confirmed.
Mr Barnier also rejected the UK government’s claim that it would be better off walking away from talks without a deal if the terms offered by the EU aren’t satisfactory, telling a press conference: “For both the European Union and the United Kingdom, a fair deal is possible and far better than no deal.
“That is what I said to David today. That’s why we will work all the time with the UK and never against the UK. There will be no hostility on my side.
“I will display a constructive attitude firmly based on the interests and support of the 27 [member states].”
Mr Barnier did not give a figure for how much the EU will be demanding to settle the UK’s outstanding budget commitments.
The Brexit secretary said there was “much common ground” between the two sides on the issue of EU nationals.
Mr Davis said, “Ever since the referendum, I have been clear that my first priority is to provide certainty to European Union citizens living in the United Kingdom, and to UK citizens resident in the European Union — and I know Michel shares that aspiration too.
“So now that the negotiations have started, we are determined to get on with the job and deliver that certainty as soon as possible.”
He added: “Today marks the start of a journey, for the United Kingdom and for the European Union.
“There is a long way to go, but we are off to a promising start. We have taken the first, critical steps together.
“Now, we have a shared responsibility to deliver quick and substantive progress.”
Mr Davis and Mr Barnier, both keen hikers, exchanged mountaineering-related gifts to mark the start of talks, with the EU’s chief negotiator joking about the “steep and rocky path” ahead.
Ian Murray, the Labour MP for Edinburgh South, called on Mr Davis to abandon any suggestion that the UK could walk away from Brexit talks without a deal.
Mr Murray said it was “pie in the sky” to suggest that a trade and customs deal would secure the same access for to the European single market as EU membership.
“Ultimately, if the Government is really out to get the best deal for Britain, they must be open to compromise on more than just the timetable of the talks, and start putting our economic prosperity at the heart of their negotiating strategy,” he said.
“The best start would be to abandon the dangerous idea that we could leave the European Union with no deal at all, which would be the worst possible outcome for jobs and living standards in this country.”