Brexit negotiations have not begun well for Britain, says former top diplomat

There was little compromise between British and EU chief negotiators on key disputes during the first full round of Brexit talks.
There was little compromise between British and EU chief negotiators on key disputes during the first full round of Brexit talks. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - Britain's negotiations over leaving the European Union have not begun well due to disagreements among Prime Minister Theresa May's team of ministers about the kind of deal they should be seeking, a former top British diplomat said.

Simon Fraser, until 2015 the most senior civil servant at Britain's Foreign Office and the head of the UK Diplomatic Service, said the government needed to put forward a clearer position.

Since May lost her parliamentary majority in a failed election gamble in June, infighting between members of her cabinet has broken into the open, with disagreements on issues including whether freedom of movement of EU nationals should continue after Britain leaves the bloc in 2019.

"The negotiations have only just begun, I don't think they have begun particularly promisingly, frankly, on the British side," said Fraser, who also formerly served as chief of staff to the European Trade Commissioner in Brussels.

"We haven't put forward a lot because, as we know, there are differences within the cabinet about the sort of Brexit that we are heading for and until those differences are further resolved I think it's very difficult for us to have a clear position," he told BBC Radio.

In the first full round of Brexit talks last month there was little compromise between British and EU chief negotiators on key disputes including how to protect the rights of expatriate citizens and on settling London's EU "divorce Bill".

"So far we haven't put much on the table apart from something on the status of nationals, so we are a bit absent from the formal negotiation," said Fraser, who now advises businesses on Brexit.

"We need to demonstrate that we are ready to engage on the substance so that people can understand what is really at stake here and what the options are, so let's move forward with that."

Media reports say the government is due to publish a series of "position papers" later this week, including its proposals on future customs arrangements with the EU and how to deal with the Northern Irish border.

Meanwhile, May's spokesman said on Monday Britain does not recognise media reports claiming that Britain would be willing to pay up to 40 billion euros to exit the European Union.

The Sunday Telegraph reported that Britain would be willing to pay up to 40 billion euros, citing three unnamed sources familiar with Britain's negotiating strategy.

The EU has floated a figure of 60 billion euros, while Britain has not indicated how much it would be prepared to pay.

"In terms of this figure, I don't recognise it," May's spokesman told reporters. "The prime minister made clear in the letter triggering Article 50 (the EU exit process) that the UK and the EU need to discuss a fair settlement of both our rights and obligations as an EU member state."

When asked whether Britain and the EU were expecting to come up with a firm figure for the exit Bill at this stage in the talks, or a less precise agreement covering the rules which would be used to calculate it, the spokesman said: "I'm not getting into a running commentary on the negotiations or the precise structure of them."

He repeated that answer when asked whether the 40 billion euro figure was lower than the government was willing to accept, or whether the government had actually calculated an amount it was prepared to pay.

The size of the Bill will also heavily depend on the shape of Britain's transitional agreement - a staggered exit process which could see the government paying into EU regulatory schemes while new domestic ones are established.

Britain has yet to set out what kind of transitional deal it is seeking, making estimates of the final bill difficult to calculate.