BRUSSELS — The European Union on Friday raised the possibility of starting general talks on Britain's future relationship with the bloc as early as the fall if decisive progress is made on key parts of the divorce proceedings — a move that grants some of the British prime minister's wishes.
Draft guidelines obtained by The Associated Press say the EU and Britain must first "settle the disentanglement" of Britain from the bloc. But once there is a tentative consensus between the two sides on major topics — the treatment of citizens in each other's nations, billions in budget commitments, legal clarity for companies working in Britain and a solution for Ireland's border with the United Kingdom — the EU says it would be willing to look ahead.
"Once and only once we have achieved sufficient progress on the withdrawal, can we discuss the framework for our future relationship," EU Council President Donald Tusk said in Valletta, Malta.
He added "probably in the autumn, at least I hope so."
British Prime Minister Theresa May had been seeking parallel talks on the EU divorce and the future but those apparently will not happen for the foreseeable future. Still, Tusk's timetable and the EU draft showed that the EU was willing to compromise.
It will take a summit of the 27 leaders, however, to signal that that moment has come to look toward the future. In Germany, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said "we will hopefully come to this second step soon."
EU leaders have warned that the two years of talks triggered this week to negotiate Britain's exit will be difficult — but insisted they don't want an all-out economic or diplomatic conflict. The 27 EU leaders are set to agree on common guidelines on April 29, exactly one month after May triggered the Brexit process.
The challenges prior to moving onto the next step of talks are sizable, however. Some 3.3 million EU citizens now live in Britain and about 1 million Briton live in the rest of the EU. Since the issue of foreigners taking jobs from British workers fueled the Brexit referendum, a solution pleasing both Brussels and London will not be easy.
In addition, the outstanding bill for London to pay in previously agreed EU costs and commitments has been estimated at up to 60 billion euros ($64 billion). Populist voices in Britain have urged the Conservative government not to pay a penny.
And when it comes to the U.K.'s land border in Ireland, which is key to the Northern Ireland peace process, Tusk's draft guideline says that "flexible and imaginative solutions will be required."
Further complicating things in the full withdrawal negotiations will be Gibraltar, the British overseas territory on the Mediterranean that Spain has wanted back since it ceded it more than three centuries ago. The outpost at the southern point of the Iberian peninsula has a population of 32,000 and about 96 per cent of its residents voted to remain in the EU last year.
The EU draft says the future of Gibraltar will be set in talks between Spain and the U.K., giving Spain a very strong negotiating position.
"After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom," the draft says.
"This is an important point in the future negotiations of the United Kingdom's exit from the EU," said Spanish minister Inigo Mendez de Vigo.
Tusk said the EU will not punish Britain in the negotiations, saying that Brexit itself is "punitive enough." The head of the rotating EU presidency, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, insisted the negotiations "will not be a war."
Tusk also ruled out the suggestion that there was an inherent threat in May's departure letter Wednesday, which some felt hinted that Britain would end its security co-operation with continental Europe unless it gets a good Brexit deal.
"I know Theresa May well enough and I know her approach to this issue. This is why I rule out this kind of interpretation ... that security co-operation is used as a bargaining chip. It must be a misunderstanding," Tusk said.
British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson also insisted Friday that Britain's commitment to European defence and security is "unconditional" and "not some bargaining chip in any negotiations" over Brexit.
Johnson, speaking in Brussels upon arriving for a NATO meeting, said he has had good feedback from EU partners since Britain formally announced Wednesday that it would be leaving the EU, despite worries on both sides of the Channel about Brexit.
"We really are moving forward now. There's a lot of good will, willingness to achieve what the prime minister has said she wants to achieve," he said.
The British government triggered the two-year EU exit process Wednesday with May's letter to the EU and began outlining how it intends to convert thousands of EU rules into British laws in a Great Repeal Bill.
Lorne Cook in Brussels, Stephen Calleja in Valletta, Malta, and Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report.
Raf Casert, The Associated Press