EU believes the UK still hasn’t understood that Brexit comes at a price

London says €100bn divorce bill is unjustified. Brussels is growing impatient

Early days. The Brexit talks have barely finished their third round and commentators are despairing at their pace and wondering if there is any chance of meeting the October summit target when the opening of the second-phase talks on the future EU-UK relationship will be considered.

But such complex talks never move at an even pace, the dynamic is intensely political – now we're waiting for the Tory Party conference – and there is talk of accelerating the monthly meetings to a fortnightly schedule. This week's significant progress on the Irish strand might also give pause for hope.

The big challenge, however, is the Brexit bill, the subject of a phoney war, a display of time-wasting legal shadow-boxing.

Brexit bill

The United Kingdom’s big play this week was the lengthy legal deconstruction of the European Commission’s paper on the UK Brexit bill. Forty-five pages of analysis to prove, it said, that commission demands for up to €100 billion have no legal justification.


The latter’s paper on the UK liability argues that the UK must pay its traditional share in the seven-year multiannual financial framework, or Maff, the EU long-term budget, which has several years to run. The UK argues that Maff is only a planning tool and not a legal commitment by member states, and that its liability to the EU arises only from the actual annual budgets agreed.

Yet this is not a legal but a political argument. Everyone knows, but dare not say, that the final bill will be a political compromise. The UK’s real case is a moral one, and dubious at that. And everyone knows that the UK is not going to go to the ultimate legal authority, the European Court of Justice, to determine this one.

In one respect London does have a point. The whole financial-bill issue could be simplified immeasurably were the EU to start negotiations on a transition regime of two or three years – effectively an extension of UK membership – when, presumably, the United Kingdom would be expected to cough up its share of the budget, about €10 billion a year. And it could do so with political cover that would make it at least somewhat more palatable at home.

Barnier’s mandate

There are indeed a number of first-phase talks issues that could be more easily resolved were the second-phase discussions to start now, but of that there is no prospect. The EU-27 leaders are determined not to let the UK off the hook of what they see as important moral and legal obligations – this is not a fine or punishment – and, seasoned diplomats say, there is virtually no prospect they will review Michel Barnier’s mandate.

Banier, the EU’s chief negotiator, is visibly impatient at what he sees as the UK’s stalling and unrealistic positions. He believes that the fundamental British position has not moved far from where it was at the start of this process, when EU leaders warned after the referendum that no “cherry-picking” would be allowed.

“The UK wants to take back control, it wants to adopt its own standards and regulations, but it also wants to have these standards recognised automatically in the EU. That is what the UK papers ask for. This is simply impossible,” he said bluntly on Wednesday. And he returned again to a regular theme: his belief that the UK simply has not yet understood that leaving the EU comes at a price.