Reported Brexit bill sparks anger in UK

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The EU’s chief negotiator for Brexit Michel Barnier addresses guests on the second day of the Berlin Security Conference in Berlin, Germany, on Wednesday. — AFP

LONDON — Brexiteers and Europhiles reacted angrily to reports on Wednesday that Britain will pay up to 55 billion euros to leave the European Union, putting pressure on British negotiators ahead of key talks.

London and Brussels have agreed that Britain will pay between 45 and 55 billion euros ($53-63 billion), according to the Daily Telegraph.

The Financial Times reported Britain would cover EU liabilities worth as much as 100 billion euros, but when structured as net payments over many decades that could drop to less than half that amount.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier refused to confirm the reports, calling them “rumors”.

“There is a subject on which we are continuing to work — despite the claims or rumors in the press today, that’s the issue of financial engagements,” he told a security conference in Berlin.

Pro-Brexit supporters reacted with anger to the reports, with leading campaigner Nigel Farage calling the reported figure “utterly unacceptable”.

“For a sum of this magnitude to be agreed in return for nothing more than a promise of a decent settlement on trade represents a complete and total sellout,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

Meanwhile, pro-EU Labour lawmaker Chuka Umunna said the government’s apparent climb down dispelled pro-Brexit campaign claims.

“This is a whopping great symbol for the impossibility on delivering Brexit on the terms it was sold to the British people,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today program.

Investors were more optimistic that the reports heralded a breakthrough, sending the pound 0.5 percent higher against the dollar, a two-month high.

The newspapers said negotiators, headed on the British side by leading Brexit official Olly Robbins, reached the understanding at meetings in Brussels last week.

An agreement would be a major breakthrough as Britain prepares for an EU summit in December where it is hoping to get the go-ahead to start the next phase of talks on future trade ties with the EU.

It would leave two major areas on which the two sides still do not agree — expatriate citizens’ rights after Brexit and the future of the Irish border.

“The deal on the money is there,” a senior source involved in the negotiations told the Telegraph.

“It’s now the ECJ (European Court of Justice) question and Northern Ireland that are the outstanding issues ahead of the Council,” the source said.

One key area of contention is whether the 3.2 million EU citizens living in Britain will continue to be allowed to appeal to ECJ jurisdiction or if their rights will be governed by British courts, as London insists.

So far both sides have avoided publicly declaring a clear-cut number for what Britain owes the rest of the EU.

Prime Minister Theresa May had offered to cover Britain’s contributions to its budget in 2019 and 2020 — a total of around 20 billion euros.

That pledge was reportedly doubled to 40 billion euros at a ministerial meeting in London last week.

The Telegraph quoted an EU source with knowledge of the talks said the text of the financial agreement would allow a “low figure” to be generated for the British public but would also give the EU the certainty it is looking for.

Asked about the reports, a spokesman for Britain’s Department for Exiting the European Union said “intensive talks” are taking place in Brussels this week, and did not address the divorce bill directly.

“We are exploring how we can continue to build on recent momentum in the talks so that together we can move the negotiations on to the next phase and discuss our future partnership,” he added.

The European Commission declined to comment.

Asked about the reports, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, a Brexit supporter, told BBC radio: “We are paying the EU almost £10 billion a year net anyway.

“We don’t want to walk away on bad terms,” he said. — AFP


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