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UK treasury chief: economy should be main focus in Brexit

LUXEMBOURG (AP) — Britain’s finance minister said Friday that protecting jobs and the economy should be the main focus in upcoming discussions over the country’s exit from the European Union.

Arriving for a meeting with his counterparts in the 28-country EU, Philip Hammond said his “clear view and I believe the view of the majority of people in Britain is that we should prioritize protecting jobs, protecting economic growth and protecting prosperity as we enter those negotiations and take them forward.”

The Brexit discussions are due to begin on Monday when the British minister in charge of the process, David Davis, meets the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, in Brussels. The talks are taking place three months after Prime Minister Theresa May formally triggered the two-year Brexit timetable.

Since May’s Conservative Party failed to win a majority in last week’s general election, there has been a lot of debate over the impact on the Brexit discussions and whether the British government will be more open to compromising on some issues, like trade.

Hammond’s comments Friday come a day after he cancelled a keynote address to London financiers in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, in which the death toll is expected to rise from 17.

“Our focus over the last couple of days has obviously been on the tragic fire a Grenfell Tower in West London and our thoughts are with the families of those who died and the community in that area,” he said. “It’s our dominating theme today and will remain so over the weekend as bodies are recovered and we start to get a sense of the scale of the tragedy.”

In his Mansion House speech, Hammond was expected to make the case for a so-called “soft” Brexit, which prioritizes economic considerations over the more “hard” Brexit approach, which focuses more on limiting immigration and restoring sovereignty.

He wouldn’t be drawn on whether he supported Britain’s continued membership in the single market and said May’s minority government will negotiate in a “pragmatic” manner, striving for a solution that works for both sides.

“I’m not going to give a blow by blow account of how we propose to take that discussion forward,” he said. “We will negotiate in good faith but it is a negotiation, we recognize there will be an exchange of views and we will take that forward in a spirit of genuine cooperation.”

Hammond said his presence at the EU finance ministers’ meeting was “a sign of our commitment to being close partners with the European Union after we’ve left.”

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