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May agrees deal worth up to €50 billion
Britain will pay EU bills for decades after the government bowed to demands from Brussels to meet its long-term financial liabilities to the bloc.
Theresa May will make an improved offer next week in which she will promise to pay the costs of all existing EU projects and pensions signed off while Britain was a member.
The cost, likely to be between €40 billion and €50 billion in total, will not be settled as a lump sum but will be spread over a period of up to 40 years on a diminishing scale “when they [the bills] fall due”.
EU diplomats expect the prime minister to use that language when she tables the offer at a meeting on Monday with Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission.
The wording will satisfy EU governments that there will be no shortfalls in European projects, or the pensions of retired Brussels officials, without the need at this stage of the negotiations to specify a figure for the total settlement.
The offer will mean that Britain will continue to contribute billions of pounds a year to EU budgets at least for the next decade, with lower figures beyond that. The payments undermine the central claim by the Brexit campaign during the referendum that Britain would have an extra £350 million a week to spend on the NHS when it left the union.
The figure was cited by Leave campaigners including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove as the amount that Britain would save in gross EU contributions each week.
“All we need is four extra words,” a European negotiator said of Mrs May. “At Florence she said, ‘the UK will honour commitments we have made during the period of our membership’. All we need is the phrase, ‘when they fall due’, added to the end of the sentence. That’s it. No numbers, just those words.”
The development comes amid a dispute over the government’s secret reports on the impact of Brexit. David Davis, the Brexit secretary, provided an 850-page dossier of information to the Brexit select committee yesterday but sensitive information had been withheld. This prompted the Tory grandee Ken Clarke to accuse the government of reducing parliamentary sovereignty to a “ridiculous level”.
However, a Whitehall figure who has studied the edited reports in detail has told The Times that they are “misleading” and look like a whitewash.
In Brussels sources said that the EU’s 27 governments were ready to “help with the spin” by concealing the eventual cost of a Brexit bill that would be “in a range, subject to certain variables, of €40 billion to €50 billion”. One source said: “Everyone will be happy to help to disguise the figure even in their own parliaments.”
Both sides, according to officials who are party to the talks, “understand each other at the level of the spreadsheets” and negotiators have moved on to the drafting of a “verbal rather than a mathematical formula”.
The Financial Times reported that Oliver Robbins, Mrs May’s lead official on Brexit, made the offer in talks at the European Commission last week. However, a source at the Department for Exiting the European Union denied other reports that a deal had been finalised, adding that negotiations were continuing.
Sterling hit a nine-week high against the dollar during early trading morning, as currency traders responded to heightened confidence that agreement over the Brexit bill was a possibility. Shortly after 7am, it was trading at $1.337. Against the euro, it has risen 1.3 per cent since news of the settlement emerged last night, to €1.128.
Details of key variables needed to calculate a total “bill” will not be given, in terms of percentage shares or methods for calculating precise liabilities, one negotiator said.
Progress is also understood to have been made on the issue of the Northern Irish border, with officials on both sides looking at finding face- saving diplomatic language until full-blown trade negotiations take place next year. If talks are successful between Mrs May and Mr Juncker next Monday, EU ambassadors will, on Wednesday begin to discuss the terms of negotiations on a two-year transition deal.
Any new financial offer is likely to be controversial among Brexiteers, although it was signed off by a key committee that included Mr Johnson and Mr Gove last week. Nigel Farage, the former leader of Ukip, described it last night as a “bad deal”.
A spokesman for the Department for Exiting the EU said: “Intensive talks between the UK and the European Commission continue to take place in Brussels this week as we seek to reach an agreement.
“We are exploring how we can continue to build on recent momentum in the talks so that together we can move the negotiations on to the next phase and discuss our future partnership.”
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