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David Cameron backs settling £50bn EU divorce bill before trade talks

David Cameron has said Britain must agree a “divorce bill” with the European Union before trade talks can start as Theresa May prepared for her first face-to-face meeting with the bloc’s chief negotiator.

Mrs May is hosting a working dinner with Michel Barnier and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker at Downing Street on Wednesday evening, which is expected to focus on the process of exit talks.

The issue of a Brexit “divorce bill” of an estimated £50 billion could arise, given Mr Barnier’s insistence that the UK must “settle the accounts” before beginning talks on a future trading relationship with the EU.

The meeting also comes ahead of Saturday’s European Council summit, when leaders of the other 27 EU countries will discuss their draft guidelines for negotiations, which reject the UK’s pleas for parallel trade and divorce talks.

Answering questions at a global tourism summit in Bangkok, Mr Cameron appeared to back the EU’s stance, saying: “I would hope that we will be able to agree, as it were, the first bits of divorce – it’s a bit like a divorce, you have to deal with the money and then access to the children afterwards.”

The former prime minister said he thought both sides could agree that “of course we accept some liabilities for this membership we’ve had for 40 years, just as we have a claim on some of the assets that we’ve paid into.

“And I think we can settle the principles of that and then get on with the nature of the relationship.”

Senior members of the Government have insisted that Britain will not pay a bill of the scale suggested by the likes of Mr Juncker, with International Trade Secretary Liam Fox branding the idea “absurd”.

But Mrs May has said she is ready to discuss a “fair settlement” of Britain’s obligations, although she has given no hint of the amount she is prepared to contemplate.

Mr Cameron said he is optimistic about the outcome of Brexit, suggesting that the starting point for a deal could be maintaining free trade in goods, before striking sector-by-sector agreements in areas such as financial services, agriculture and air travel.

The separate agreements could be deals “in principle” to be implemented over a transition period, which the EU has acknowledged may be necessary in its draft guidelines.

The former Tory leader also backed Mrs May’s decision to hold a General Election which she is seeking to define by Brexit, saying it would give her more time and political space to negotiate a good deal for the UK.

Brexit Secretary David Davis said “cool heads, strong leadership and traditional British resolve” would be needed to secure a good deal as the UK leaves the EU.

Speaking to the Prosperity UK conference in London, Mr Davis acknowledged Britain would have to make compromises in the negotiations, but insisted the country had “very good reason to feel optimistic”.

He said visits to a dozen EU countries over recent weeks – including four in the last couple of days – had convinced him that the remaining member states wish to conduct negotiations “in a spirit of sincere co-operation”.

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