Picture: AFP
Picture: AFP

After their big bust-up a year ago, the estranged couple finally initiated divorce proceedings.

On the one side of the table sat David Davis, representing Britain, the aggrieved party that smashed the crockery and moved into a motel with the people cheering on. On the other sat Michel Barnier, representing the EU, the sometimes angry, sometimes bemused partner who has been unable to work out exactly what went wrong.

As proceedings of this nature go, the start was amicable enough.

The parties agreed to meet for one week in each of the next several months and spend the other three weeks trying to come up with clever responses to each other.

And that’s it. All they agreed on was the timetable.

Still, Davis tried to make the most of it, saying: "We’ve laid solid foundations for future discussions and an ambitious but achievable timetable."

Barnier reciprocated with something similar.

Reuters reported that they exchanged gifts. Barnier gave Davis a walking stick from his native Alps. David gave Barnier a French mountaineer’s memoir.

There were signs of the beginnings of tension. Davis said talks about Britain’s future trade relationship with Europe would happen "in parallel" with talks about the exit.

Barnier insisted the exit would come first and the future relationship would follow afterwards. If there was "significant progress", it was achieved on the first objective.

Among the issues is the question of what to do about Britain’s border with Ireland, which will remain in the EU. If it becomes a "hard" border, the economies on both sides will suffer. If it remains a "soft" border, it becomes a leak in the dyke through which people and goods may find their way.

Fitting for divorce proceedings, there were some testy words. "It is the UK that’s leaving the EU, not the other way around," said Barnier. "Everyone must accept their responsibilities, the consequences of their decisions ... So my mind is not on making concessions or asking for concessions."

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