EU members stress unity heading into Brexit talks

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The 27 European Union nations heading into two years of divorce negotiations with Britain stressed unity Thursday, saying there's a large consensus on the tough guidelines for their Brexit negotiators which are to be approved at a weekend summit.

Often divided on key issues from refugees to the financial crisis, the EU nations said no major questions were left for the leaders during Saturday's summit as the negotiations with Britain draw closer.

The EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said that "we are united" as he left the meeting of EU foreign and Europe ministers in Luxembourg.

"It was an unprecedented signal of trust, unity and consensus of the 27," said Maltese Deputy Prime Minister Louis Grech, who chaired the meeting.

Also Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the strongest voice in the EU, said Britain should not assume its departure will be an easy ride.

Speaking to German lawmakers in Berlin, Merkel said to applause that she had "the feeling that some in Britain still have illusions, and that is a waste of time."

British Prime Minister Theresa May said that Merkel's comments show "how tough those negotiations are going to be."

She said that as "27 other European countries line up to oppose us," British voters should strengthen the U.K.'s hand by giving her a big majority in Parliament in an election next month.

Britain has spent lots of time trying to bounce back from the shock referendum result in June. It had to form a new government and now faces a snap election on June 8, making sure that negotiations on Brexit will not start until nearly a year after the referendum.

Once the EU's guidelines are approved on Saturday, the European Commission will pour them into a tight negotiating mandate for Barnier which should be ready May 22. Talks are expected to start sometime after the British elections, when a new government is formed.

The EU said pressing issues like the treatment of citizens living in each other's nations, the bill of remaining costs to be paid by Britain and border issues in Ireland need to be dealt with before a future relationship can be discussed.

"Without progress on the many open questions of the exit, including the financial questions, it makes no sense to have parallel negotiations over the future relationship," Merkel said.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson immediately saw problems ahead. "If you're saying that they want the money before they get any substantive talks, then that is obviously not going to happen," he told the BBC.

Estimates for the British divorce bill go as high as 60 billion euros ($65 billion).


David Rising in Berlin, and Jill Lawless in London, contributed to this report.