Belfast Telegraph

No punishment but Brexit account must be settled, says EU's Michel Barnier

Leaving the EU will not be quick or painless for Britain, the European Commission's chief negotiator has warned as a row blew up over the size of the UK's divorce bill.

Michel Barnier refused to be drawn on reports the Commission plans to hand Theresa May a bill of 100 billion euro (£84.5 billion), but said there must be a "settling of accounts".

But Brexit Secretary David Davis insisted "we will not be paying 100 billion".

He said, if Brussels failed to reach a deal acceptable to Britain, the UK would pay nothing.

The row came as Mr Barnier set out the Commission's detailed negotiating guidelines for the first phase of withdrawal talks, expected to begin in earnest after the June 8 General Election.

The guidelines confirmed the Commission expects to safeguard the lifelong status and rights of EU citizens who settle in the UK right up to the date of withdrawal, as well as family members who join them following Brexit.

They assert the competence of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg to protect those rights, even after the UK has left.

The UK will be expected to "close the account" in a "single financial settlement" which will cover not only commitments to fund the EU's 2014-20 budget, but also programmes to support countries like Turkey and Ukraine.

Speaking in Brussels, Mr Barnier said: "Some have created the illusion that Brexit would have no material impact on our lives or that negotiations can be concluded quickly and painlessly. This is not the case.

"We need sound solutions, we need legal precision and this will take time."

Mr Barnier said the first phase of negotiations will focus on the financial settlement, the status of expatriate citizens and the future border between the UK and EU in Ireland, and he hopes to be in a position by October or November to decide whether sufficient progress has been made to move on to talks about future trade relations.

In order to move to the second phase, the EU will need "clear commitments" which cannot be reopened, rather than "window dressing" from the UK, Mr Barnier stressed.

Mr Barnier denied Brussels was demanding a "blank cheque" from Britain and said the financial settlement was not a "punishment" for leaving.

The Commission's calculation of Britain's liabilities should be "incontestable" and there would be "explosive" consequences if it was not met, he said.

"This is not a punishment, nor is it an exit tax of some kind," he said.

"The Union and the United Kingdom have mutual commitments.

"They have committed to financing projects and programmes together.

"We decided these programmes together.

"We benefit from them together, and we finance them together.

"Basically, we have to close the account, and it is no more and no less. No punishment. There is no Brexit bill."

Mr Davis said he did not recognise the numbers being "bandied around" for the Brexit fee.

He insisted Theresa May would play a full part in the negotiations, dismissing as "laughable" reports Brussels would allow her to discuss Brexit only with Mr Barnier and not with leaders of the 27 remaining member states.

"We are not entering the negotiations as a supplicant," he told a press conference in London.

"We will decide the structure of our negotiating team, not the EU."

Mr Davis told ITV1's Good Morning Britain: "We have said we will meet our international obligations, but there will be our international obligations including assets and liabilities and there will be the ones that are correct in law, not just the ones the Commission want ... We will not be paying 100 billion."

He later suggested Britain would refuse to pay anything in the absence of a Brexit deal, telling Radio 4's Today: "In the walkaway circumstance, there is nothing to be paid."

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he saw the 100 billion figure as an "opening gambit" which may shift as negotiations take place, but added: "Obviously commitments that have been made must be honoured."

Liberal Democrat Tim Farron said: "During the referendum no divorce bill was ever mentioned.

"Then it was 50 billion and now it's leaped to 100 billion.

"If that is Theresa May's negotiating skills, doubling our bill after one meeting, we should all be deeply worried."

Mr Barnier met Mrs May for the first time at last week's Downing Street dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker, following which the European Commission president reportedly said the Prime Minister was "in a different galaxy" over Brexit.

The chief negotiator characterised the meeting as "cordial" and said he had the opportunity to discuss with Mrs May their shared passion for hill-walking.

In a barely-veiled warning to the Prime Minister about the perils of Brexit, he added: "if you like walking in the mountains, you have to learn a certain number of rules.

"You have to learn to put one foot in front of the other, because sometimes you are on a steep and rocky path.

"You also have to look at what accidents might befall you, falling rocks.

You have to be very careful to keep your breath, you have to have stamina because it could be a lengthy path.

"And you have to keep looking at the summit, the outcome.

"That's what I learnt when mountain-walking."

Tory former chancellor Lord Lawson suggested Britain could leave the EU without a deal.

"We should offer them a very good deal, a free trade deal with no strings attached, which in economic terms is in their interest as well as in our interest.

"But I think for political reasons they may refuse it, or refuse to talk about it, in which case we just wait patiently for two years to be up and then we're out," he told the BBC.

Mr Juncker's chief of staff Martin Selmayr indicated that the Commission president would welcome a result from the UK elections which provided a strong negotiator on the other side of the table for Brexit talks.

Asked whether he agreed that Mrs May was a "bloody difficult woman", Mr Selmayr said: "President Juncker said today that she is an impressive woman and that she is a very impressive negotiator.

"That's the way we have come to know her, and I don't think that's going to change.

"We need a very strong negotiator who unites the whole nation behind her and then in a very strong and tough way leads the negotiations."

Speaking to a press conference hosted by the Politico website in Brussels, Mr Selmayr acknowledged that reports of last week's dinner created "a lot of havoc", but insisted that the meeting was "constructive".

Brexit negotiations would not be "a walk in the park", but he was sure that, as a "pragmatic" nation, the UK would conduct them "in good faith", he said.

He said the EU would miss the UK most for "not having their pragmatism with us any longer", adding: "They come across as very sceptical, but they are not, they are great optimists and very pragmatic."

And he added: "Brexit will never become a success, of course, because it is a sad and sorry event. But as I have set out, it can be managed in a professional and pragmatic way."

Mr Selmayr played down the extent to which Brexit will dominate EU activities in the coming years, insisting that Mr Juncker will be spending only about "half an hour a week" on the subject.

Brexit would only come to the forefront of EU debate every three or four months, he predicted.

Mr Selmayr said he did not believe the remaining 27 EU members would resist any attempt by the UK to withdraw the Article 50 letter announcing its intention to quit.

"It's a very theoretical question, because I don't expect that a letter that was submitted can be withdrawn," he said.

"Unilaterally it cannot be withdrawn. If that situation ever arose, I don't think the other member states would say `No your letter of withdrawal may never be withdrawn'. That's a question that would have to be discussed when the time arises."

Mr Barnier will spend two days in Ireland next week.

He will tour the border region as part of the visit, to see for himself the challenges involved in maintaining the free flow of movement post-Brexit.

Mr Barnier will also hold meetings in Dublin.