Brexit MPs warn Theresa May over EU's 'unacceptable' divorce bill demand

Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier has given the UK two weeks to spell out how much it will pay for a 'divorce' bill

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Friday 10 November 2017 20:02
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EU chief negotiator: UK has two weeks to agree Brexit 'divorce' bill or no trade talks this year

Tory Brexiteers have warned Theresa May not to give more ground to Brussels, after EU negotiators demanded Britain set out within two weeks how much it will pay for its “divorce” bill.

One Conservative former cabinet minister said EU demands were not acceptable, while another prominent backbencher said any further concessions would be a “sign of weakness”.

Ms May is unwilling to anger Eurosceptic MPs whose support she desperately needs, but is also eager to convince the EU she has done enough to merit moving Brexit negotiations onto future trade.

With the Prime Minister needing to show that she can move talks on by mid-December, The Independent understand she is preparing to go over EU negotiators’ heads and appeal directly to European capitals to gain progress.

The EU’s Brexit lead Michel Barnier told reporters after the latest round of talks ended on Friday that any discussion on trade would be “put back” again if Britain’s position did not move in a fortnight.

He signalled that if the UK gave a commitment to pay more money as part of the divorce bill he would be able to recommend to European leaders that “sufficient progress” had been made to discuss a lucrative trading relationship.

But ex-minister John Whittingdale said: “The Prime Minister has moved quite a long way. We have made a very generous offer through her speech in Florence.”

He went on: “But the other side, Barnier and the European Commission, have essentially not budged from the position they set out at the very beginning.

“And some of those things I don’t think are acceptable, such as the involvement of the European Court of Justice once we have left the European Union.”

Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, talked of as a future leader in eurosceptic circles, said it was not yet time to walk away from talks but added “it is time not to be walked over”.

He said: “The UK Government has so far made a number of generous concessions.

“Any further ones would be a sign of weakness when the EU desperately needs our money for the past two years of [its budget] to remain solvent.”

Meanwhile, John Redwood MP said of Mr Barnier’s words: “I don’t mind what deadlines he sets. I don’t want the Government to offer them any money at all.

“One of the things we voted for is to pay for our priorities with our own money.”

Brexit talks are still largely stalemated over the dispute on how big the UK’s divorce bill should be. Ms May has already indirectly committed to paying some £20bn, but the EU wants a concrete promise that could leave it liable to pay twice as much.

Barnier: The Brexit agreement will not be based on concessions

The Government had wanted to wrap up the withdrawal part of negotiations by last month’s European Council summit, allowing talks to move on to transition and future trade, but failed to largely because of the divorce bill.

If Ms May cannot settle the matter and gain the EU’s agreement to move talks forward by the next Council summit on 14 and 15 December, it could destabilise her leadership.

The next opportunity to ensure “sufficient progress” would be in March 2018, leaving very little time for the rest of the negotiations to take place.

But The Independent understands that Ms May will not allow herself to be tied down by Mr Barnier’ two-week deadine, and will instead appeal directly to leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel in order to push for progress in talks.

There is expected to be a flurry of diplomatic activity in European capitals ahead of the next summit, which will see UK officials highlighting concessions already made and the benefits of moving forward.

Speaking after the close of talks on Friday, Mr Barnier was asked whether the UK only had two weeks to ensure there is more progress before the December meeting. He said simply: “My answer is yes.”

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