Downing Street has dismissed the idea of paying a Brexit divorce bill of up to €40bn (£36bn), as leading supporters of leaving the EU said they would not accept handing over such a large sum.
Theresa May was reported on Sunday to be willing to pay that amount as the price for getting on with trade talks and an exit deal.
The sum would be a compromise, because Brussels has demanded about €60bn. The €40bn figure would still be the equivalent of several years of contributions to the EU budget, which would continue to be paid after Britain leaves the EU in March 2019.
A Downing Street source, however, said the figure, which was mentioned by Brussels sources quoted in the Sunday Telegraph, was “inaccurate speculation”, playing down the idea that such a high bill would be acceptable to the government or Brexit voters.
The issue of payments to the EU is a huge political problem for No 10, partly because the Brexit campaign mentioned recouping £350m a week from Brussels to put towards the NHS.
At the same time, the EU will not progress to the next stage of talks on the future relationship until it deems that “sufficient progress” has been made on the financial settlement.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, told diplomats last month that the next step may be pushed back to December because Britain is stalling on the bill.
May and David Davis, the Brexit secretary, have accepted that an amount will have to be paid, saying they need “to determine a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations”.
But some Brexit supporters take a much harder line against payments to the EU. Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, told the House of Commons last month that Brussels could “go whistle”.
Others dismissed the idea of handing over payments to the EU after leaving.
The Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said there was “no logic to this figure. Legally we owe nothing”. His colleague Peter Bone said it would be “very strange” for parliament to vote in favour of such large sums.
“One of the prime reasons the UK voted to leave the EU was to stop sending them billions of pounds per year, so it would be totally bizarre to give the EU any money, let alone £36bn, given also that over the years that we have been in the EU or its predecessor we have given them, net, over £200bn,” he said. “So if there was going to be any transfer of money, then it should be from the EU to the UK.
“I think it would be very strange of parliament to pay billions of pounds to leave an organisation that you have given hundreds of billions of pounds to and got nothing in return. That would be a very strange decision, so I don’t think it would happen.”
The former cabinet minister John Redwood told LBC Radio it was ridiculous to suggest the UK would need to pay in order to achieve trade talks.
“Ministers would be quite wrong to be talking about any figures. We don’t owe them any money,” he said. “It would be silly to be offering something when the EU is still not very willing to talk and is not coming up with anything constructive on its own side. The EU’s tactic is very clear. It’s divide and rule to try to get Britain negotiating with herself.”
The former Ukip leader Nigel Farage also questioned the need to pay any bill, using a speech in the US to say he may be forced to “throw myself back into the frontline fight of British politics” to stop the Conservatives watering down Brexit.
The EU’s stance is that trade talks cannot begin until significant progress has been made on the financial settlement, citizens’ rights and Northern Ireland.
It is understood that the government is planning to publish a series of papers on issues such as the customs union and Irish border in the coming weeks, to set out its public position for the first time since May detailed her negotiating strategy at Lancaster House in January.
This article was written by Rowena Mason Deputy political editor, for theguardian.com on Sunday 6th August 2017 17.19 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010