Big row looms at start of Brexit talks over price of UK’s divorce

If the EU takes Britain to court, is there any hope of agreement on a trade deal?

Michel Barnier has previously referred to a possible €60 billion bill for Britain, a prospect greeted with horror in London. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

Michel Barnier has previously referred to a possible €60 billion bill for Britain, a prospect greeted with horror in London. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

 

Is it just positioning? Or are we heading for a big row at the very start of the Brexit talks? Lead EU negotiator Michel Barnier confirmed in a speech in Brussels that the EU wanted agreement on Britain’s exit bill – and on the mutual rights of citizens – before the talks moved on to a new trade deal. While Barnier did not give any figures, he has previously referred to a possible €60 billion bill, a prospect greeted with horror in London.

Already the vibes from Brussels are that Britain cannot leave without an agreement on settling its liabilities. If Britain will not pay up, according to a leak of the draft EU negotiating strategy to a Dutch newspaper, the EU is prepared to take Britain to the International Court of Justice in the Hague to try to force it to meet its commitments.

The problem is that there is no clear legal basis for calculating what Britain owes, and in fact some legal opinion in Britain is that Theresa May is not obliged to buy Britain’s way out at all. Europe’s legal advice, we are told, is that Britain has commitments to part-fund future spending plans, even beyond the 2019 date on which it leaves. If it does all end up in court, it is hard to see how progress could be made in other areas of the talks.

To add spice to proceedings, Barnier outlined his vision of the chaos which would ensue if no post-Brexit deal was done, particularly for Britain, with long customs queues, uncertainty for EU nationals in Britain and British nationals living in the EU, air travel chaos and so on.

The EU agrees with Theresa May that an “ambitious” trade deal should be negotiated, he said. But the leaked negotiating strategy says that Britain cannot enjoy all its previous trading freedoms if it leaves the EU and will not agree to continue free movement of people and accept the rule of the EU Court of Justice.

The question is whether a middle way can be found, allowing agreement on an exit bill and paving the way for some kind of free trade deal. It won’t be easy. And first up will be the row over the price of the divorce.