Brussels sources leaked that Prime Minister Theresa May is prepared to agree on a £36 billion Brexit payment so she can advance the stalled negotiations, according to an article in the Sunday Telegraph.  This predictably led to Tories, like Jacob Rees-Mogg, expressing outrage. He said,” There is no logic to this figure. Legally we owe nothing.” Conservative Peter Bone dredged up the Leave campaign’s complaints against paying Brussels “billions of pounds per year,” calculating that, “over the years that we have been in the EU or its predecessor we have given them, net, over £200 billion. So, if there was going to be any transfer of money, then it should be from the EU to the UK.”  

Downing Street said reports that the Government was planning to offer EU annual payments of €10 billion for up to three years after Brexit were “highly speculative and wrong.”  In her speech later this summer, it’s highly unlikely Theresa May will bow to pressure and state the specific figures she intends to offer Brussels. While the Government appears determined to delay discussing any precise figure, politicians who are sowing the seeds of discontent aren’t doing Brexit negotiators any favours. MPs who have made misleading statements suggesting the UK shouldn’t pay the so-called “Divorce Bill”, would better serve the Government by quietly accepting the reality that the UK will get a better Brexit result by fulfilling prior obligations. 

Not a good beginning

Former diplomat Sir Simon Fraser stated the obvious when he pointed out that the British side of the negotiations haven’t “begun particularly promising”.  He put this down to the “unresolved “differences within the cabinet about the sort of Brexit that we are heading for” that make it difficult for the UK to “have a clear position.” 

In reaction to Sir Simon’s opinions, a Government spokesman said: “We would disagree strongly. The last two months, we have had a constructive start to the negotiations.” He pointed out the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union’s statement at the end of the last round of talks, recalling: “important progress has been made in understanding one another’s positions on key issues.”  Sir Simon also complained that the UK hasn’t clarified its position on any issue except the status of foreign nationals. That policy paper, titled: Safeguarding the position of EU citizens in the UK and Nationals in the EU, published 26 June has been criticised for lacking clarity and blamed for increasing EU nationals’ worries about their legal status in the UK after Brexit. 

If the Government’s position on a transitional customs agreement is agreed by her cabinet, it’s expected that this policy will be published sometime during the week of 14 August, prior to the talks in Brussels. Closely following will be the much-anticipated approach to the Northern Ireland border, considered by the UK to be “inextricably linked” to the customs relationship with EU. These forthcoming papers have been termed the “big push”, a reaction to a perception—especially among EU27—that the UK is unprepared for Brexit negotiations. 

The changing cheque

Michel Barnier’s, the EU’s chief negotiator said: “There is no Brexit bill, the financial settlement is only about settling the accounts.” The first appearance of the disputed “divorce bill” was made on 29 April, when the EU 27 heads of state accepted the negotiation guidelines that were prepared by the President of the European Council.  

The Council broke the negotiations into two phases, prioritising the rights of EU citizens who live in the UK. The other matter the EU requested as part of the first phase of withdrawing was the demand that the UK make an exit payment that was initially £52 billion. The figure expanded to £92 billion after Germany, France and Poland introduced their own additional financial settlement demands. This didn’t go down well with the Leave campaign, whose bus had been adorned with the claim that the UK sends “the EU £350 million a week”. 

Those who expect the UK to stop paying into EU immediately upon exiting, fail to understand that the EU budget is set in a seven-year cycle called the multiannual financial framework which outlines the EU’s spending plans and priorities. The current framework runs between 2014 and 2020, however, David Cameron pledged, along with other EU member countries, to pay for long range programmes that are slated to start from 2019 to 2025, and extend longer. This is officially known in EU as reste à liquider, or money that has yet to be paid. 

A second issue is the contributions the UK may choose to make in future, paying for, as the Government’s white paper stated: “European programmes in which we might want to participate.” The Government has said that continued cooperation in fighting crime and terrorism as well as collaborations in science and innovations are a priority.  These are expected to be deducted from any exit bill, making it hard to arrive at an accurate figure in advance.

Take back control or get the best deal?

Those who voted Leave in order to regain control of UK finances cannot demand that the government cease making payments to the EU and also get the best possible Brexit deals. Negotiations simply don’t work that way. Theresa May must maintain a balancing act between those who voted for Brexit and a sensible manner of proceeding with the negotiations. She’s promised that “the days of Britain making vast contributions to the European Union every year will end.” She later put herself on more cautious ground. After her December statement to Parliament, Conservative MP backbencher Philip Davies asked her to pledge that the UK wouldn’t pay any more money into the EU budget after Brexit. She said: “What’s important is that, when we leave the European Union, people want to ensure that it’s the British Government that decides how taxpayer’s money is spent.” 

The public is losing confidence in May’s ability to get a deal, according to a 2-3 August opinion poll for ORB International. Out of 2,000 British voters polled, 44 percent said they weren’t confident May would get what they consider the right Brexit deal. Only 35 percent said they felt confident she would do so and 21 percent didn’t know. ORB’s managing director Johnny Heald attributed the fall in confidence to May’s losing her parliamentary majority in the snap 8 June election. 

Going forward, May will hope to take back control of the private nuances of the negotiations—from UK politicians who are making inflammatory statements to the press—so that she can get the best deal for the UK.  She can’t hope to please those who voted to Remain, nor can she fulfill the promises made by those who persuaded people to vote Leave.