The EU’s chief negotiator has admitted to a clash with Theresa May during last week’s dinner in Downing Street and warned that the size of the multibillion pound bill the British government will be presented on leaving the bloc will be “incontestable”.
Michel Barnier told reporters the “clock was ticking” on the time left to come to an agreement about the future as he unveiled the EU’s opening stance on citizens’ rights, the UK’s financial obligations and the border in Ireland.
Reports have emerged that the EU is preparing to demand a payment of up to €100bn (£84.5bn), up from a previously estimated €60bn, due to new stricter demands driven by France and Germany.
Barnier declined to specify a sum, pointing out that the amount would depend on whether further financial commitments were made before the UK leaves in 2019, but suggested that the UK should swiftly agree to a schedule of payments to cover its share of the costs for the EU’s past commitments, including those to Turkey for its help in stemming migration flows.
“This all has to be totted up,” he said. “We have entered into rigorous and objective work that should be incontestable and which will have to take account of commitments for the past.
“I cannot understand why here and there I hear mention of punishment, the exit bill, the Brexit bill. Commitments have been made and those responsibilities have to be honoured.”
With reference to a dinner in Downing Street last Wednesday, where the prime minister is said to have suggested that Britain did not have to pay a penny under the treaties, Barnier added: “I see that today on this question, as others, there are differing positions that emerged during the dinner in which I participated in.
“The UK must put a great deal of energy and effort into these three issues over the next weeks and months, and that will increase the chances of making a deal.
“Some have created the illusion that Brexit would have no material impact on our lives or that negotiations can be concluded quickly and painlessly. This is not the case. We need sound solutions, we need legal precision and this will take time.”
David Davis, the British government minister charged with overseeing Brexit, has rejected suggestions that the UK will have to pay €100bn.
He said at a press conference in London that he did not recognise the figure, but would not “negotiate with a megaphone”. Philip Hammond, the UK chancellor, who spoke alongside him, said: “We are on the brink of a very tough, complex, lengthy negotiation, and I am not remotely surprised that people are manoeuvring for opening advantage in that negotiation.”
The EU wants Britain to agree on a financial settlement that covers all previous budget commitments, leaving the UK continuing to pay into Brussels “up to and including 2023”.
A senior EU official added that they were also unwilling to take the UK Treasury’s previous contributions to Brussels’ coffers into account when calculating the final sum.
It had been hoped by some in the UK that Britain could offset its liabilities by reference to its share of EU buildings, investments and even its generous wine cellar, but it is understood that it was the EU member states who decided to stand firm on the issue.
“The EU assets belong to the union and the EU member states do not have any rights to those assets,” an EU official said. “There is no shareholding in the European Union. All of the union’s assets belong to the union and that includes buildings, other assets tangible and intangible, financial, drinkable and non-drinkable.”
The official also suggested there may be a debate over whether the UK can immediately take out its shareholding in the European Investment Bank, given the country’s contractual obligation to keep the institution a going concern.
However, Barnier insisted that there was no hostility to the UK, and that he hoped he could reach an “entente cordiale”. “There is no punishment, there is no Brexit bill, the financial settlement is only about settling the accounts,” he said.
Barnier said the meal, which was his first meeting with May, had been very cordial
He referred to his and May’s shared passion for rambling and hill walking, though this passage of his speech contained a barely coded message for May about the rocky paths ahead. “If you like walking in the mountains, you have to learn a certain number of rules,” he said. “You have to learn to put one foot in front of the other … You also have to look at what accidents might befall you … You have to have stamina because it could be a long route.”
Barnier is from the Savoy Alps, the most mountainous region of France. May, a keen hill walker, claims to have arrived at her decision to call a snap general election while walking in Snowdonia.
Barnier rejected the argument of Conservative ministers that a big win for May in the general election on 8 June would strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations.
“These elections will not change anything as regarding the position and the determination of the European Union,” he said. “Without any aggressiveness or naivety, we will defend the interests of the 27 and the single market.”
Despite the show of gallantry towards May, he criticised those who have said a country could leave the EU without consequences.
Barnier said. “You are unwinding 45 years or so of a relationship. That is why you can’t do everything in 15 or 16 months, by October . I get the feeling that on the London side, the people I have met are aware of the difficulties,” he said.
But in a veiled reference to those in the Conservative party and their backers in the rightwing press pushing for a hard Brexit, he implied that there were people in the UK who still had to catch up.
“There will be consequences,” he said. “Those who pretend, or who did pretend, that you can leave the EU and there are no consequences simply aren’t telling the truth.”
Barnier was speaking after the European commission discussed his draft negotiating text, known as the directives, which develops the broadbrush guidelines agreed by EU leaders.
Barnier made it clear that he expects the European court of justice to resolve any post-Brexit disputes over EU citizens’ rights or the divorce bill. “Whenever European Union law is involved, we will have to depend on the court of justice … otherwise the rights of citizens are just an illusion,” he said.
EU ministers will have the final word on the draft negotiating text, which is due to be signed off on 22 May.