David Davis has denied Theresa May is preparing to approve a Brexit ”divorce bill” of €50bn, saying UK negotiators would not allow time pressures to force Britain into paying vast sums.
The Brexit secretary insisted there was no legal obligation for the UK to pay sums for EU projects after leaving the bloc, even those approved while the UK was a member, but conceded there were “moral or political” reasons to reach a financial settlement.
No 10 sources also denied May was preparing to agree a bill of around £46bn at current exchange rates, which the Sunday Times reported was set to be announced after the Conservative party conference. Under Whitehall plans,the UK would pay between £7bn and £17bn a year to Brussels for three years after Britain leaves the EU in March 2019, the paper said.
Davis said the story was “nonsense ... completely wrong” and that the UK position was not yet settled. “They have set this up because they are trying to play time against money,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, though he declined to repeat the international trade secretary Liam Fox’s description of the negotiations as blackmail.
“Time is not running out. We have a two-year process,” he said. “Every time we come to something serious there will be a pressure exercise of this sort. Money is incredibly important, it is the thing that frightens them most.”
Davis’s remarks came after a bruising press conference in Brussels after the latest round of talks with the EU, during which its chief negotiator Michel Barnier said there had been “no concrete progress”.
The Brexit secretary said Barnier “looked a bit silly because there were plainly things we achieved ... The commission puts itself in a silly position when it says nothing has been done when really important things have. We put people before process. They are in danger of putting process first.”
Comparing the financial settlement to a hotel bill, Davis said UK negotiators were checking the details, not making a counter offer.
“We are a country that meets its international obligations but they have to be that. They may not be legal ones, they may be moral or political ones,” he said. Post-Brexit, the UK would “still be paying something, I suspect,” Davis said, citing space agency research and the EU’s Horizon 2020 scientific programme.
Ahead of parliament’s return on Monday, Davis also used his interview with Marr to urge backbenchers from both parties to back the government’s repeal bill, which critics say will grant sweeping powers to ministers to change legislation without parliamentary scrutiny.
No 10 has told would-be Conservative rebels, most of whom favour a soft Brexit, that they risk allowing Labour and Jeremy Corbyn to capitalise if they block the bill’s passage through the House of Commons.
The European Union (withdrawal) bill is intended to transpose EU legislation into British law from the day the UK leaves the EU, and ministers say it is crucial to ensure a smooth transition process. The process will involve extensive use of so-called “Henry VIII powers” – laws that allow ministers to change primary legislation using secondary legislation without parliamentary scrutiny.
Ministers insist the powers will be used only to make technical changes to make the EU laws applicable to the UK, but Labour has said it is likely to oppose the bill because of the implications.
The government is not expected to face serious trouble over the Brexit bill at the second reading next week, but Conservative MPs who favour a soft Brexit are already planning to table amendments at the committee stage in October, which could attract cross-party backing.
Davis said all MPs had an interest in the bill succeeding. “Everything in terms of significant change will be done in separate primary legislation, from immigration bills to customs bills. Anybody, remainer or leaver, should support this bill,” he said.
“This bill is there in order to enable continuity, if you want a soft Brexit ... this is the bill you should be supporting. It takes the laws there now and puts them in place the say after we leave. It’s not a question of national politics.”
Damian Green, the first secretary of state, used a Sunday Telegraph article to warn Tories not to derail the legislation. “Starting the new parliamentary session with the withdrawal bill shows that it is now the job of all MPs, including my former colleagues on the Stronger In campaign, to respect the will of the people and get the best possible deal for Britain,” he said.
“No Conservative wants a bad Brexit deal, or to do anything that increases the threat of a Corbyn government.”
Anna Sourby, a pro-remain former minister Anna Soubry responded angrily to attempts to try to stop Tory MPs tabling or supporting amendments to the legislation. “Any suggestion that this is in any way treacherous or supporting Jeremy Corbyn is outrageous,” she said. “It amounts to a trouncing of democracy and people will not accept it. People will be very alarmed. It will all backfire on them.”
The former constitution minister John Penrose said there was a delicate balance to be struck between the flexibility required to cope with Brexit and the fundamental role of parliament in scrutinising the changes.
“The current draft of the repeal bill gives lots of power to ministers so we can deliver Brexit – which is essential – but it cuts parliament’s role right down,” he said. “Ministers have already said they don’t want this bill to be a power grab, so I’m sure they will listen and bring forward their own changes as the bill goes through parliament.”
This article was written by Jessica Elgot Political reporter, for theguardian.com on Sunday 3rd September 2017 14.08 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010