EU’s Barnier warns Britain to settle its divorce bill to earn trust

Britain must meet tough conditions in divorce talks — and doesn't have long to do it — before the two sides can start looking at a future relationship, European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier says.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Flags are arranged at the EU headquarters as Britain and the EU launch Brexit talks in Brussels, June 19, 2017.

The European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned Britain on Wednesday to quickly settle a row over its divorce bill, hitting back at British foreign minister Boris Johnson's remark that the bloc could "go whistle" on the issue.

"I am not hearing any whistling, just the clock ticking," France's Barnier told a news conference in Brussels when asked about Johnson's comments on the money the EU expects Britain to pay when withdrawing. The deadline for Britain to leave the bloc is March 2019.

Barnier said Britain must meet tough conditions in divorce talks — and doesn't have long to do it — before the two sides can start looking at a future relationship.

Showing frustration with what Europeans consider British grandstanding and impatience with a dearth of clear proposals, Barnier said Britain needs to make "sufficient progress" on all the initial issues — citizens' rights, the bill that Britain must pay to the EU and the Irish border — before talks can move to a future trade deal.

Barnier urged Britain to send Brussels its negotiating position on the key issues ahead of the second round of formal Brexit talks with his British counterpart David Davis, which start on Monday in Brussels.

Barnier said the three areas "are indivisible and intertwined," making clear that progress in two of the three would be insufficient to advance to the next stage.

European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier addresses a news conference at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. July 12, 2017. (Reuters)

Britain’s “bill”

He insisted that Britain recognise it faces a bill of many tens of billions of euros to meet previous commitments it made as an EU member. Otherwise, he says, there's no point in discussing anything else.

"It's not an exit bill. It's not a punishment. It's not revenge — at no time has it been those things. It's simply a settling of accounts," he said.

He added that following its vote last year to leave the EU, Britain had to finally admit that it needed to foot the bill for its departure, estimated by EU officials at around 100 billion euros ($112 billion). This includes pension liabilities for EU staff and other commitments such as farming subsidies to humanitarian aid.

"On the single financial settlement, it is essential that the UK recognise the existence of financial obligations which are simply a result of the period in which they were members of the EU," he said.

But the exit bill has been a major source of contention, with Johnson saying it was excessive in a speech to parliament on Monday.

"I think that the sums that I have seen that they propose to demand from this country seem to me to be extortionate and I think 'to go whistle' is an entirely appropriate expression," Britain’s foreign minister said.

However, Barnier hinted that any future trade deal would depend on Britain paying its bills.

"How do you build a relationship which is going to last with a country where you don't have trust?" said the Frenchman.

"I can't imagine that that a very great country like the UK will not also be a responsible country and respect its commitments."

Trust, he said "means settling accounts."

Wasting time

After Barnier briefed the EU Commission on the negotiations, he spoke to reporters, and exuded some impatience with the British government for letting valuable time in the two-year negotiating slot go to waste.

After triggering the two-year divorce negotiations in March, British Prime Minister Theresa May decided to call an early election to strengthen her hand — only to lose her Conservative majority and add to the political chaos in a country deeply divided over Brexit.

Barnier repeatedly said that the "clock is ticking" before his deadline of October 2018 to reach the outline of a deal, before Britain formally leaves the EU in March 2019.

"We have published nine EU position papers so far on different issues. The EU positions are clear," said Barnier. "We now need to know the UK's position on each of these issues in order to make progress."

"We are ready. My team is ready," said Barnier, adding he was even "ready to work through the 14th of July" — France's Bastille Day holiday.

The first issue being addressed by the two sides — citizens' rights for people living in each other's nations — is already posing serious problems.

Barnier said, "The British position does not allow those persons concerned to live their lives as they do today."

The European Parliament has dismissed the proposals made by May, calling them insufficient and burdensome.

The European Parliament's input is important since it could veto any deal.

TRTWorld and agencies