BRUSSELS – European Union lawmakers on Wednesday threw their weight behind the chief EU negotiator for the divorce proceedings with Britain, backing his call for phased negotiations — against the wishes of London — and demanding Britain pay billions in commitments that the EU thinks it is owed.
The European Parliament, which has veto power at the end of the two-year negotiations, set out a tough negotiation for London. The lawmakers voted 516-133 for the resolution, with 50 abstentions.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier called parallel talks on Britain's exit from the EU and a future trade relationship "a very risky approach" that he is bent on avoiding.
Barnier told EU legislators in Strasbourg, France, that "to succeed, we need on the contrary to devote the first phase of negotiations exclusively to reaching agreement on the principle of the exit."
British Prime Minister Theresa May last week sought hand-in-hand negotiations on exit and a future relationship, while the EU Council president and EU top legislators argued against it.
The Brexit talks are expected to start in late May once the negotiating guidelines of the 27 member nations have been sealed in a mandate for Barnier.
Britain insisted again, though, that it wanted to move on to discuss the future as soon as possible.
"The best interests of both sides of this negotiation will be served by getting on to the technical discussion about the future relationship as quickly as possible in the two years that we have available," said junior Brexit Minister Robin Walker.
The resolution of the Parliament also stressed that EU nations should start no bilateral deals with Britain until an exit agreement is final and said that Britain should pay its outstanding bills, which could go as high 60 billion euros ($64 billion)
Nigel Farage, one of the chief backers of Brexit, said Britain would not be held hostage by the parliament.
"You are behaving like the mafia, you think we're a hostage. We're not, we're free to go. We're free to go," Farage said to hoots from other legislators. In reaction, he said he was willing to change "mafia" to "gangsters" so not to rile Italian sensitivities.
Both sides have a general agreement that they want to tackle the fate of the 3 million EU citizens in Britain and some 1 million Britons residing in the other EU nations first of all.
"I really welcome the fact that the parliament and the (EU) Council have set that out as a first priority from the EU perspective as well," Walker said.
The parliament's Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, said it was perhaps best that there was never much positive passion in the cross-Channel relationship. "It never was a love affair," he said, instead calling it "a marriage of convenience."