EU's Tusk says May Brexit speech 'more realistic'

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Brussels (AFP)

European Union president Donald Tusk said Tuesday that British premier Theresa May's speech on her plans for Brexit was "at least more realistic" about what London wanted.

But the European Commission's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned that an orderly divorce from the bloc within the specified two years was a "prerequisite" for a future free trade deal that May wants with Brussels.

"Sad process, surrealistic times but at least more realistic announcement on #Brexit. EU27 united and ready to negotiate after Art 50," tweeted Tusk, who heads the European Council that groups EU leaders.

May, who was due to speak to Tusk later by phone, has said she will invoke Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon treaty to begin the Brexit negotiations by the end of March.

That then starts a two-year countdown for the divorce deal, including agreement on an exit bill that Britain has to pay for budgetary obligations, and reciprocal rights for Britons living in the EU and vice versa.

- Multi-billion exit bill -

The EU has estimated the bill Britain will have to pay at 55 to 60 billion euros, EU sources told AFP.

Britain and the EU will also try to agree a future relationship including a possible trade deal, but a "disorderly" Brexit would leave Britain to crash out with no agreement and see costly tariffs introduced.

"Ready as soon as UK is. Only notification can kick off negotiations," French former commissioner Barnier tweeted in English

"Agreement on orderly exit is prerequisite for future partnership. My priority is to get the right deal for EU27."

May said in London that she wanted a clean break from the European Union but hoped for a trade deal after Brexit so as to maintain the fullest British access possible to the EU single market.

Meanwhile the Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, welcomed the "clarity" that May had given on the single market.

"That said, it creates also an illusion, an illusion that you can go out of the single market, that you can go out of customs union and that you can cherry pick, that you can still have a number of advantages, and I think that will not happen," he said.

"We shall never accept a situation in which it is better to be outside the EU, outside the single market, than to be a member of the EU."

Separately a spokesman said European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker was briefed "with interest" on May's address and that a "courtesy phone call is scheduled between the two leaders later today".