British newspapers Daily Telegraph, Financial Times and Guardian all cited diplomatic sources who say the two sides have agreed on method for calculating the so-called “Brexit bill” – what Britain owes the EU for engagements over its 44-year membership.
There is no fixed figure, but estimates put the real cost in the ballpark of 50 billion euros, not far from what Brussels had been claiming.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said the reports were “rumours” and that negotiations were still underway.
“We are working hard on this question so that I can tell the European Council [summit of EU leaders on 14-15 December] whether we have made sufficient progress” to open up trade talks, Barnier said.
“We are not at that point,” he emphasised. “If we find this point of agreement in the coming days, then the members of the EU will decide in 2018 the framework of our new partnership with the UK.”
Hopeful tone from the EU
But the fact that Barnier is mentioning trade talks and expressing hope for an impending deal marks a change in tone and suggests real progress has been made.
“He’s been pretty gloomy in the past, very clear when things were not going well, and that therefore gives him a lot of extra credibility when he says, as he is saying now, that things are going in the right direction,” says Brussels-based consultant Nicholas Whyte.
“Of course, agreement isn’t there until you have signatures on the dotted line, but it’s also very clear that this issue is now moving in the right direction after many months of stalling.”
Adding to the credibility of the reports is the simple fact that a deal of this was bound to come sooner or later.
“The UK government has always said that it would meet its financial obligations, and without a generous financial offer from the UK, they wouldn’t have been able to move onto trade talks, and that really is what matters more,” says Jonathan Tonge, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool.
“Although it sounds like an awful lot of money and won’t go down well domestically, I don’t think the UK government has any alternative than to pay up.”
Eurosceptics and two other issues
While a 50-billion-euro price tag is bound to ruffle the feathers of eurosceptics and make things uncomfortable for British Prime Minister Theresa May, it’s unclear whether hard-line Brexiters in her own Conservative Party would be able to seriously object to such a deal.
“May does have one great card to play, which is to say, ‘you demanded that we leave the European Union, we are leaving the European Union, do you really believe we would be able to walk away without paying anything?’” says Jonathan Tonge.
“Although there will be a lot of noise about the money that’s being paid and the sum involved, I think that even the eurosceptics, who are not always rational, will accept, that as long as we’re still leaving, it’s probably a price worth paying.”
May meets European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday, the EU-imposed deadline for enough “sufficient progress,” in Barnier’s term, to recommend that EU leaders agree to launching trade talks.
A divorce settlement would go a long way towards that condition, but there also remain the two other key questions of citizen rights and the contentious issue of the UK border with Ireland, whose government has rejected all UK proposals so far.
“If the British are prepared to move to meet the Irish demands, rather than claiming as they have done up until now that these demands are purely imaginary, then I think there’s quite a good chance we will see that progress next week,” says Nicholas Whyte, who has a background in politics in Northern Ireland.
“If they don’t, then of course Ireland does retain the power to prevent things from going forward. But it’s not just Ireland. The British customs service actually has a poor reputation in the EU […], so the Irish have got pretty full support from the other EU member states.”