Brexit secretary David Davis quoted the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox as he told his counterpart Michel Barnier there is “more that unites us than divides us” in the face of terror.
EU chief negotiator Mr Barnier, meanwhile, paid tribute to the victims of this morning’s terror attack on a mosque in London saying he sent them his “deep sympathies”.
The pair, who know each other well over decades in European politics, shook hands and smiled for the cameras at a brief press conference to mark the official start of the Brexit negotiations.
But even at this symbolic event the EU’s determination to conduct the talks on its terms was clear, with Mr Barnier leaving no room for doubt about how the process will be organised.
The Frenchman insisted that the negotiations will stick to the phased timetable set out by Brussels, which is designed to “tackle the uncertainties caused by Brexit”.
Under his plans the first phase, expected to last until at least October, will focus on technical aspects of the divorce including citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and Northern Ireland.
Only after that, eurocrats say, can discussions be started on the future relationship between Britain and the EU, including the possibility of a free trade agreement.
After welcoming Mr Davis with warm words, the EU negotiator told reporters: “Today we are launching the negotiations on the orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU.
“Our objective is clear, we must first tackle the uncertainties caused by Brexit. First for citizens, but also for the beneficiaries of the EU policies and for the impact on borders, in particular Ireland.
“I hope that today we can identify priorities and a timetable that would allow me to report to the European Council later this week that we had a constructive opening of negotiations.”
In reply Mr Davis paid tribute to the victims in London and also those who perished in dreadful forest fires in Portugal which have so far claimed more than 60 lives.
The Brexit secretary said Europe was facing “testing times” and quoted from a famous Commons speech by Ms Cox, who was murdered last year in her Batley constituency by far-right extremist Thomas Mair.
Mr Davis told his counterpart: “Thank you very much for that kind introduction. I’m here in Brussels today like Michel to begin the next phase of our work to build a new deep and special partnership with the EU.
“It’s at testing times like these that we’re reminded of the values and resolve that we share with our closest allies in Europe.
“There’s more that unites us than divides us, so while there will undoubtedly be challenging times ahead of us in the negotiations we’ll do all we can to ensure we deliver a deal that works in the best interests of all citizens.
“To that end we’re starting these negotiations in a positive and constructive tone determined to build a strong and special partnership between ourselves and our European allies for the future.”