Britain is 'backtracking' on its Brexit divorce bill commitments, EU's chief negotiator warns

Michel Barnier calls for UK to re-think its legal opinion on the Brexit bill

Jon Stone
Brussels
@joncstone
Thursday 07 September 2017 13:01
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Michel Barnier speaks to reporters in Brussels
Michel Barnier speaks to reporters in Brussels

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator has accused Britain of “backtracking” on its commitment to pay what it owes the EU budget in the years after Brexit.

Michel Barnier said he was “disappointed” by the UK position and publicly warned the British team it should go back to the drawing board after it presented a legal analysis arguing that Britain owed far less that the Commission believed.

He argued that the Brexit bill was “not a matter of punishment” but instead about funding commitments made under the so-called Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) of payments already agreed by the UK.

“You have projects for infrastructure, transport, universities, and these only come to fruition in terms of payments several years down the line. There are thousands of people, stakeholders, companies, citizens, universities, laboratories, they have set up their projects on the basis of the promise made by the 28 member states,” he told reporters in Brussels on Thursday.

“So there’s a moral dilemma here: you can’t have 27 paying for what was decided by 28, so what was decided by 28 member states, that has to be bourne out by 28 member states right up to the end, it’s as simple as that.

“I’ve been very disappointed by the UK position as expressed last week, because it seems to me backtracking on the original commitment of the UK to honour its international commitments, including the commitments post-Brexit.

He argued that there was a “problem of confidence”, describing the situation as “serious”.

He added: “I can say that there’s no exit bill, it’s not a matter of punishment. That’s not that way I think and it never will be, but to have confidence you need to balance the books in a rigorous, objective, legally-sound fashion.”

“There we do indeed look to the British Government to take a fresh look at the legal analysis they presented the other day which for us is extremely negative in terms of the success of our negotiations.”

The UK says it wants to go through the Brexit bill line-by-line to work out what it owes the EU, but the EU says spending commitments already agreed to during the current budget round should simply be honoured.

David Davis told the House of Commons earlier this week that he had “significant differences” with the EU on the Brexit divorce bill and that the two sides were taking “very different legal stances”.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said the final divorce bill could be around £55bn. Mr Davis has dismissed reports the UK secretly agreed a bill of up to £50bn. Others suggested the divorce bill could reach £92bn.

The so-called divorce bill has caused controversy for months. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson faced criticism in July for suggesting the EU could “go whistle” if they expected the UK to pay any money to leave.

Mr Barnier also used his press conference to re-iterate his argument that the UK wanted the benefits of the single market while also having the flexibility of being outside it.

Contrasting the approaches of two countries, he said: “It’s not possible for a third county to combine simultaneously the benefits of Norway with the weak constrains of Canada.”

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