Theresa May’s office dismissed as speculation a report that the U.K. is prepared to pay a 40 billion-euro ($47 billion) bill to leave the European Union, while leading Brexit supporters pushed back against paying anything at all.
The sum surfaced in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, which cited three government officials it didn’t identify as saying Britain would offer it to push the discussion toward a future trade deal. On Monday, though, May’s spokesman, James Slack, told reporters: “I don’t recognize the figure.”
The Brexit bill is key to unlocking progress in the discussions as time ticks down toward the March 2019 deadline when Britain will depart the bloc, deal or no deal. A third round of talks with EU negotiators is scheduled for later this month, and the bill, alongside the U.K.’s border with Ireland and the rights of EU citizens, is one of three issues the bloc’s lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, says progress must be made on before talks can move on to discussing the future trading relationship.
“There is no logic to this figure,” Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading pro-Brexit Conservative lawmaker, said on Twitter. “Legally we owe nothing.” A colleague, John Redwood, told LBC radio: “There is absolutely no legal need or political need to offer them anything at all, full stop.”
Not a Penny
“This business that we have pay to get them to talk about trade is just completely ridiculous because they need to talk about trade more than we need to talk about trade,” Redwood said. “We all know that they will talk about trade before March 2019 because it’s in their interests to do so, and we have absolutely no need to pay them a penny to get them to talk about something they need to talk about.”
While Brexit Secretary David Davis told the Sunday Times that the reported sum was “news to me,” the Telegraph story detailed a degree of behind-the-scenes bartering, with the figure seen as a potential compromise between what the EU wants and the U.K.’s starting position.
“We have set out that this discussion needs to take place on the fair settlement of our rights and obligations and that discussion will happen,” Slack said, referring to a speech in January by the premier and a written answer to a parliamentary question last month by Davis.
A commission official said the EU’s executive arm wouldn’t speculate on rumors. The official also noted that Barnier has explained on several occasions that the financial settlement covers all commitments made by the U.K. as a member of the bloc.
While there may not be agreement within the government over the bill, there’s been a shift within May’s cabinet, including among ardent Brexit supporters, to a view that a transition period is unavoidable to bridge Brexit day and when a new trade agreement sets in. The problem has been over how long this should last — with Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond envisioning a period of three years — and whether the free movement of people should be allowed to continue in the interim.
Former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King told BBC Radio 4 Saturday that the government “probably wasted a year” and that no Brexit deal was “not the first preference of anybody.”
Clarity will emerge as the government gets ready to release a series of position papers, which will provide the strongest clues so far on how much May is willing to compromise and show whether her Brexit vision has indeed softened.
Politico reported that in one paper, the U.K. will seek a transitional customs agreement with the EU. In a second it will outline its solution to the Northern Ireland border as it charts a smooth route out of the bloc.
Politico cited senior officials as saying the government sees the two issues as inseparable and wants them and the rights of EU citizens resolved as part of a big push to pivot talks to trade. The government will publish as many as 12 position papers over the next two months, ahead of a summit of EU leaders that will be a forum to untangle stubborn sticking points.