By: Alex Barker and Paul McClean in Brussels
Germany warned that the reality of Brexit had yet to “break through” in London on Tuesday as the EU unanimously agreed an uncompromising negotiating mandate for exit talks.
EU ministers endorsed 18 pages of legally binding instructions for the bloc’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who is aiming to start formal talks in the week beginning June 19, almost exactly a year after Britain’s referendum vote to leave the union.
The EU stance demands the maximum possible from London on the so-called “divorce” phase of the negotiation, showing little restraint on demands over financial liabilities or legacy obligations.
During the ministers’ discussions, Michael Roth, Germany’s European affairs minister, said that the reality of Brexit’s costs had yet to break through in London and that the EU27 had to brace for that moment in weeks to come. “We have two years. The clock is ticking,” Mr Roth told journalists in Brussels. “We have to get down to work.
”In recent weeks member states have hardened the EU’s stance, setting increasingly exacting requirements for Britain in the divorce stage of the negotiations to meet before trade talks can begin.
Even with an election campaign in full flow in Britain, there were few signs of reservations or dissent among the 27 ministers over the aim-high approach to talks.
This includes a maximalist view of Britain’s financial obligations that underpins an estimated exit bill of €55-75bn in net terms, covering everything from the costs of moving London-based EU agencies to EU farm payments in 2019 and 2020.
In gross terms, the EU has raised its opening demand for Britain’s Brexit bill to up to €100bn.
Mr Barnier is not seeking upfront agreement on a final bill, but will seek detailed principles to be agreed on rights and money that could not be reopened at a later stage of talks.
The EU also adopted the broadest possible view of acquired citizen rights, to allow 3m workers to live with the protection of EU law and EU courts for decades to come, even as they live and work in Brexit Britain.
“We want to move to a situation where all the commitments taken by the UK will be honoured, as will ours with the UK,” Mr Barnier said. “We need to settle the accounts, and that’s a question of trust between us to build our future relationship.
”Such a position is directly at odds with London’s view of negotiations. David Davis, Britain’s Brexit secretary, has said Britain is willing to agree only citizen rights terms in the first phase of talks and expects the “row of the summer” to be over the EU’s divorce-first approach. He told the Sunday Times that Britain may quit talks if the EU demanded €100bn and added that he saw even “£1bn as a lot of money”.
On Monday Mr Davis said he was “ready to hit the ground running” but hit back at the “ideological obsessions” in Brussels. “The deal we reach will need independent and impartial enforcement,” he said. “But an ideological obsession in Brussels with one-sided jurisdiction by the European Court of Justice — in the UK, after we have left the EU — is not acceptable and will not work.”
Both net-contributors and net-recipients from the EU budget are presently united in pressing Britain as hard as possible on its financial liabilities. “They have to realise that if you’re part of a club and you want to leave — and it’s very British — you have to pay your contribution,” said Bert Koenders, Dutch foreign minister.
This was echoed by Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s foreign minister, who said that trade talks would not start if Britain digs in and “we get stuck” on the issue of a financial settlement.
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