Britain Accused of Back-Tracking on Brexit Divorce Bill

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  • Chief negotiator Barnier worried about U.K.’s Ireland position
  • Barnier warns U.K. not to waste time going behind his back

U.K.'s May Faces Brexit Obstacles from EU, Labour

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The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator highlighted the depth of the division between the two sides by accusing the U.K. of reneging on promises over its divorce payment.

“I’ve been very disappointed by the U.K. position as expressed last week, because it seems to be backtracking on the original commitment of the U.K. to honor its international commitments, including the commitments post-Brexit,” Michel Barnier told reporters in Brussels on Thursday. “There is a moral dilemma here; you can’t have 27 paying for what was decided by 28.”

What do we owe you? Read more about the spat over the Brexit bill

There’s a huge question mark hanging over what the U.K. should pay when it leaves the bloc in March 2019. Britain believes it’s only legally obliged to pay its annual membership fee until departure and some say the amount should depend on what market access it enjoys in the future. The EU’s position is that the U.K. is bound by its past obligations that stretch beyond its departure date.

The problem needs addressing -- and soon -- before the EU summit in exactly six weeks when leaders will decide whether “sufficient progress” has been made to allow discussions on future trade links.

The two sides will probably be stuck through October, Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, said in a statement on Thursday. “Given the current state of play of negotiations and the current position of the U.K., it would seem very difficult that sufficient progress can be achieved by October,” he said. The Guardian reported May had turned down an invitation to address the parliament.

The test on progress will be applied to other thorny topics surrounding Britain’s withdrawal, including how to keep an open Irish border. A frequent refrain of Brexit Secretary David Davis has been for the EU to exercise more imagination and flexibility.

Oh Please

Barnier was not impressed last week when asked about it: “To be flexible you need two points, our point and their point. We need to know their position and then I can be flexible.”

On Thursday, he sidestepped questions over the prospects for a transition period to soften the blow for companies and investors after the U.K.’s withdrawal.

Earlier on Thursday, Davis gave the most detailed description of what that period would look like -- if the EU approved it -- telling lawmakers in London that he envisaged an arrangement “as close as possible to the current circumstance.”

In a sign of the demands from her own party that Prime Minister Theresa May faces, a group of pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers circulated for signature a letter saying that Britain must leave the single market at the same time it leaves the EU, and calling for any transitional deal to stipulate a clear timetable for leaving the single market and the customs union. May’s office said the demands in the letter go beyond government policy.

The letter, leaked to The Times and confirmed by Suella Fernandes, the chairwoman of the alliance, known as the European Research Group, said “we cannot allow our country to be kept in the EU by stealth.”

“The letter is supportive of government policy,” Fernandes, who also serves as an aide to Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, told Channel 4 News. “The letter clearly states that we want to leave the single market, leave the control of the European Court of Justice and ensure that we have control over the free movement of people.”

Davis ruled out Norway-style membership of the European Economic Area or joining the European Free Trade Association, which includes Switzerland. The EU has warned that the only option on offer will be a temporary extension of the existing rules.

“We are awaiting specific requests and proposals from the U.K. which we will examine,” Barnier said. “The U.K. needs to tell us what it wants and we will see what is possible, what is acceptable while respecting the rules determining the way in which the single market works.”

Movement of People

There’s still no clear picture of what the U.K.’s relationship with the EU will look like when it leaves. In a fresh take of the EU’s retort that the U.K. can’t “have its cake and eat it,” Barnier rejected the possibility of combining “the benefits of the Norwegian model with the weak constraints of the Canadian model.”

In other words: If the U.K. wants to be as close to the EU as Norway currently is, it’ll have to pay and accept free movement of people, a demand that it may refuse to meet if documents leaked this week are to form Britain’s final approach.

Some of Barnier’s harshest language was reserved for the U.K.’s position on the Irish border, with the EU insisting that the onus is on Britain to come up with solutions to protect the fragile peace in Northern Ireland.

“What I see on the U.K.’s paper on Ireland and Northern Ireland worries me,” Barnier told reporters. “The U.K. wants to use Ireland as a kind of test-case for the future EU-U.K. customs relations -- this will not happen.”

The U.K. and the EU have both said they want to avoid a return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland or do anything that would risk destabilizing the peace process that ended decades of violence in the 1990s. Many EU officials are concerned the U.K.’s own policy document implied the Irish border was Europe’s responsibility after Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc.

Barnier was also pressed on minutes from a European Commission meeting on July 12, published this week, in which he made apparently disparaging remarks about British counterpart Davis, saying the Brexit secretary didn’t “regard his direct involvement in these negotiations as his priority.” European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker was quoted as saying he was concerned about the "stability and accountability" of Davis.

“I’ve known David Davis for about 20 years,” Barnier said. “I have cordial relations with him still, and a good professional relationship.”

Some EU governments are bracing themselves forMay to go over the head of Barnier and appeal directly to other leaders at the summit in order to force the pace and open trade talks. But Barnier didn’t give that tactic much credence.

Trying to “unearth any difference” between him and the positions of the 27 EU leaders is “a waste of time,” Barnier said.

Repeal Bill

Meanwhile, in London lawmakers began debating a landmark act designed to create a new legal system to come into force when the U.K. Leaves the EU. The so-called Withdrawal Bill will copy and paste thousands of pieces of European law onto the British statute book to avoid a legislative black hole on Brexit day.

May was in the House of Commons for the start of the debate but some of her own Conservative party members of Parliament criticized the draft law. The opposition Labour party raised fears that the bill gives the government sweeping executive powers.

Davis said he was “ready to listen” to critics who could offer improvements to the act. But former Chancellor of the Exchequer Ken Clarke said he might rebel against the government and vote against it.

— With assistance by Jonathan Stearns, Nikos Chrysoloras, and Alex Morales

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