EU discusses Brexit position as Britain threatens to quit talks

Demontrators from pro-EU group Open Britain protest outside of the Houses of Parliament in central London on March 29, 2017.
Demontrators from pro-EU group Open Britain protest outside of the Houses of Parliament in central London on March 29, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (BLOOMBERG) - European Union (EU) ministers meet in Brussels on Monday (May 22) to refine their Brexit negotiating position after Britain threatened to quit talks on its departure unless the bloc drops its demands for a divorce payment as high as 100 billion euros (S$155.3 billion).

Britain's negotiations would otherwise be plunged into "chaos," Brexit Secretary David Davis said in an interview published in the Sunday Times. Even a 1 billion pound settlement would be "a lot of money", he said.

The size of Britain's exit bill, and which types of negotiations can begin before it is determined, has been a source of debate for weeks and will prove an early test of the ability of both sides to find common ground.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said Britain will have to pay about 50 billion pounds (S$90.1 billion), while Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel has signalled a figure between 40 billion euros and 60 billion euros.

Get The Straits Times
newsletters in your inbox

The Financial Times estimated the cost could balloon to 100 billion euros, while a study by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales put the cost at as low as 5 billion pounds.

The meeting in Brussels will see European ministers of the EU's remaining 27 countries review and possibly revise the mandate for their appointed negotiator, Mr Michel Barnier. The European Parliament's Brexit point man, Mr Guy Verhofstadt, told the Sunday Times that "nothing will change" in the EU because of how Britain votes.

As the EU officials gather, British Prime Minister Theresa May will be using a speech in Wales to again warn against jeopardising the Brexit negotiations by electing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn amid reports the bloc wants talks to begin on June 19, 11 days after the election.

"The UK's seat at the negotiating table will be filled by me or Jeremy Corbyn," Mrs May will say, according to her office. "The deal we seek will be negotiated by me or Jeremy Corbyn. There will be no time to waste and no time for a new government to find its way. So the stakes in this election are high."

Polls suggest the race is tightening with the Tory advantage over Labour halving to 9 percentage points from 18 percentage points, according to a Survation survey for Good Morning Britain released on Monday.

Mrs May's government has said it will meet its commitments to the EU, but she has questioned how officials in Brussels reached their preliminary estimates.

'WALK AWAY'

"We don't need to just look like we can walk away, we need to be able to walk away," Mr Davis said. "Under the circumstances, if that was necessary, we would be in a position to do it."

Mr Davis predicted the negotiations will be "fairly turbulent" and said he would reject any blueprint for discussions that requires the issues of the divorce bill, EU citizens' rights and Northern Ireland's border to be solved before talks can begin on future trade.

"The first crisis or argument is going to be over sequencing," he said.

Mrs May also weighed in on the Brexit bill, telling the Sunday Telegraph that "money paid in the past" by Britain into joint EU projects and the European Investment Bank ought to be taken account in the final sum.

"There is much debate about what the UK's obligations might be or indeed what our rights might be," she said. "We make it clear that we would look at those both rights and obligations."