BRUSSELS â€” 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 quick progress is made on key parts of the divorce proceedings â€” a move that grants some of the wishes of British Prime Minister Theresa May.
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 the reciprocal 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."
May had been seeking parallel talks, but given that "an overall understanding on the framework for the future relationship" could under the best circumstances start later this year, it showed that the EU was also willing to compromise.
It will take a summit of the 27 leaders, however, to signal that that moment has come.
In Germany, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said "we will hopefully come to this second step soon."
The EU guidelines say it's a priority to agree on residency rights for British and other European citizens living in each other's countries, and call for "flexible and imaginative solutions" for the issue of the U.K.'s land border with EU member Ireland.
EU leaders have warned that the two years of talks triggered this week to negotiate Britain's exit will be difficult â€” but insisted they don't want 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.
Tusk said the EU will not punish Britain in the talks, 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 ruled out the suggestion 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 EU exit process Wednesday with May's letter to the EU and began outlining Thursday how it intends to convert thousands of EU rules into British laws in a Great Repeal Bill.
Lorne Cook in Brussels and Stephen Calleja in Valletta, Malta, contributed to this report.
Raf Casert, The Associated Press