Britain has acknowledged for the first time it faces financial obligations to the EU after Brexit, in what appears to be a major concession to Brussels.
In a written statement to Parliament, Brexit Minister Joyce Anelay said on Thursday that “the UK has obligations to the EU … that will survive the UK’s withdrawal – and these need to be resolved.”
“The government has been clear that we will work with the EU to determine a fair settlement to the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state,” Anelay added in the statement, released to coincide with the publication of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.
The text has been seen by Brussels as an important development. EU diplomats told the Financial Times the wording “goes further” than Prime Minister Theresa May’s previous reference to Britain being willing to reach a “fair settlement” of “unspecified obligations.”
A Whitehall source told the Times the government “is doing this now because we have to make clear that we are going to co-operate constructively if we want to begin talks on future trading relations in the autumn.”
Another source told the newspaper, “We have not been as explicit as this or put it in those terms before.”
Britain’s so-called Brexit bill has shaped up to be one of the contentious issues in negotiations, with speculations the fee could be as high as £80 billion (US$104 billion).
May must come to an agreement with her EU counterparts on the payment, as it is one of three areas, alongside citizens’ rights and the border with Ireland, that European leaders are demanding “significant progress” on before discussions can move onto Britain’s future relationship with the bloc.
With Britain’s exit set for March 2019, negotiators on both sides fear a protracted stand-off over money would waste valuable time and delay the point at which the EU decides to start trade talks.
The government’s official statement on Thursday is at odds with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s stance, who this week said the EU can “go whistle” if it wanted a “penny piece” from the UK after it leaves the bloc.
In reply, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, shot back: “I’m not hearing any whistling, just the clock ticking.”
Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, were reportedly alarmed when May claimed at a dinner in April that Britain had no legal obligation to settle financial matters when it left the union.