BRUSSELS-Leaders of 27 European Union nations gave British Prime Minister Theresa May an early Christmas present on Friday, declaring that Brexit talks can move on to their next phase: transition and future relations.
President of the European council Donald Tusk tweeted: "EU leaders agree to move on to the second phase of Brexit talks" and congratulated British Prime Minister Theresa May.
The EU also wants more clarity from the United Kingdom on what sort of trade and future relationship it envisages after Brexit to be able to start discussions on that future after March, when EU leaders adopt another set of guidelines for those talks.
Asked if a final deal by March 2019 - Britain's exit date - could be achieved, Tusk insisted it was "still realistic and of course dramatically difficult".
She said Britain would be "beginning the talks about our future relationship straight away", adding: "There is still more to do but we are well on the road to delivering a Brexit that will make Britain strong, prosperous and secure".
It makes clear that the EU expects the United Kingdom to observe all of its rules - including on freedom of movement - and accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice during this time.
Mr Juncker said on Friday that the EU's initial priority was to "formalise the agreement" that had been reached before moving forward.
Addressing the leaders over a Thursday night dinner of roasted langoustines, ballotine of capon and "festive log with a twist", May was "clear about wanting to move onto trade talks as quickly as possible", a British official said.
And time is tight.
The EU has published its guidelines for phase two of the negotiations, with discussions on future economic co-operation not likely to begin until March.
During any transition, the EU is demanding that London should give up its seat at the leaders' table, lose all its lawmakers in the European Parliament and remove its judges from Europe's courts.
And agreements on the Irish border, the so-called divorce bill and the rights of European Union and United Kingdom citizens, agreed by Mrs May last Friday, must be "respected in full and translated faithfully into legal terms as quickly as possible".
The document "calls on the United Kingdom to provide further clarity on its position on the framework for the future relationship".
"I have no doubt that the real test of our unity will be the second phase of the Brexit talks", Tusk told reporters as he arrived at the summit.
Meanwhile, Mrs May is facing a further challenge to her authority next week when MPs vote on a Government amendment to enshrine the Brexit date of March 29 2019 in law.
In September, May outlined an "around" two-year-long transition period after the United Kingdom leaves the bloc in March 2019.
But several hours later as leaders reconvened, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Italy's Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni warned that the hardest decisions were still to come as Britain tries to extricate itself from rules agreed over years in the bloc.