World Bulletin / News Desk
European Union leaders agreed Friday to open crucial talks on a future relationship with Britain once it leaves the bloc, but warned it would be "dramatically difficult" to reach a deal before Brexit in 2019.
EU President Donald Tusk said afterwards that the bloc would open "exploratory contacts with the UK to get more clarity on their vision" for ties after Brexit.
But while talks will begin in January on a post-Brexit transition period, the EU's guidelines state that actual negotiations on the future relationship -- including trade -- will not start until March.
Tusk said the next stage would be even harder than the tortuous six months of negotiations that led to last Friday's interim accord on Britain's financial settlement, expatriate rights and the Irish border.
Asked if a final deal could be achieved by the time Britain leaves on March 29, 2019, he cautioned that it was "still realistic and of course dramatically difficult".
May, who had left the summit in Brussels after dinner on Thursday night, expressed on Twitter her thanks to Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
"Today is an important step on the road to delivering a smooth and orderly Brexit and forging our deep and special future partnership," she said.
As he arrived for the talks, Juncker -- who sealed the deal with May on December 8 after tense all-night talks -- said the British premier had made "big efforts".
But he also warned that the next stage "would be much harder than the first phase, and the first phase was very hard".
German Chancellor Angela Merkel added that while progress had been made, the negotiations ahead would be "even tougher".
She had warned earlier that "there remain many issues to be solved and we don't have much time".
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