By Ian Wishart
The European Union finalized its tough Brexit negotiating position, reiterating its hard line on the UK’s departure bill and refusing to discuss a future trading arrangement until there is agreement on other key topics.
“We want to move to a situation where all the commitments taken by the UK will be honored, as will ours with the UK,” Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, told reporters in Brussels on Monday after a meeting of the remaining 27 national governments. “We need to settle the accounts, and that’s a question of trust between us to build our future relationship.”
Speaking a day after UK Brexit Secretary David Davis was quoted in an interview as saying Britain would walk away from talks unless the bloc drops its high financial demands, Barnier said it would be wrong to see any collapse in the negotiations as a success.
The size of Britain’s exit bill, which some estimates put as high as 100 billion euros ($112.4 billion) and is based on the UK’s past financial commitments to the EU, has been a source of debate for weeks and will prove an early test of the ability of both sides to find common ground when negotiations start. Even a 1 billion-pound ($1.3 billion) settlement would be “a lot of money,” Davis said in the interview published in the Sunday Times.
“All 27 of us today have confirmed the position we’re going to defend,” Barnier said. “I do understand the UK has different positions, but as we’ve said, a negotiation is a negotiation.”
The negotiating mandate covers the main areas that need to be tackled before any discussion of a free-trade arrangement, and touches on the divorce bill, citizens’ rights and the UK’s border with Ireland. Barnier said he is seeking to organize the first round of the talks “hopefully in the week of June 19.”
UK Prime Minister Theresa May used the looming talks as a reason for voters to re-elect her Conservative Party to government in the June 8 election. “There will be no time to waste and no time for a new government to find its way,” she said in a speech in Wales. “Every vote for me and my team in this election will be a vote to strengthen my hand in the negotiations to come.”
The initial part of the Brexit discussions will be spent working out the order of talks, threatening a breakdown even before the debate on substantive matters begins. The EU has rejected May’s request that the sides discuss the UK’s future trading relationship with the bloc at the same time as issues relating to its withdrawal.
The two sides have until March 29, 2019, to find common ground on the separation. At that point, Britain will leave the EU regardless of whether it has a deal or not.
“They have to realize that if you’re part of a club and you want to leave”•and it’s very British”•you have to pay your contribution,” Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders told reporters in Brussels. A good agreement between the EU and the UK “is in the interests of all of us.” Bloomberg