EU, Britain clash over Brexit bill

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned on Wednesday that negotiations will not be quick or painless, as Brussels and London traded blows over the size of Britain’s exit bill.

Unveiling his negotiating mandate for two years of talks, France’s Barnier denied the bloc was punishing Britain but insisted it must settle its accounts.

London in return hotly rejected a reported €100 billion bill from the other 27 European Union states and warned it could simply walk away from negotiations if bullied.

“Some have created the illusion that Brexit would have no material impact on our lives, or that negotiations can be concluded quickly and painlessly. This is not the case,” Barnier told a news conference in Brussels. He refused to give an overall figure for what Britain must pay, but said this was not tantamount to demanding a “blank cheque” to end its four decades of membership.

“There is no punishment, there is no Brexit bill. The financial settlement is only about settling the accounts,” the former European Commissioner and French government minister said. He warned that the “clock is ticking” for a settlement, saying there had been “10 months of uncertainty” since Britain narrowly voted to leave the EU in a referendum in June.

Barnier’s proposed negotiating mandate closely follows the political guidelines unanimously agreed at a summit on Saturday by the leaders of the other 27 EU nations without Britain. It demands that before talks on a future trade deal can start, Britain must first settle divorce terms on money, the rights of EU citizens living in Britain, and the border in Northern Ireland.

British Prime Minister Theresa May wants the talks to run in parallel. Brexit minister David Davis said his country could simply walk away from the negotiations, following a report in the Financial Times that the estimated bill for Britain’s departure had soared from €60 billion to €100 billion.

May, who has called a snap election for next month, has warned that she would rather Britain exit the EU without any agreement on future ties than accept a “bad deal”.

But she was put on the defensive this week after leaks about a disastrous dinner in London with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Barnier. Juncker took a lighter tone on Wednesday, describing May as a “tough lady”. But he warned Davis, who is likely to be the man opposite Barnier during the talks, against further threats.

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