France says ‘we want our money back’ as Brexit talks wrap up

France insisted that the UK pay a Brexit bill of as much as €100 billion, or $115 billion, underlining the hurdles to substantial progress in negotiations toward a new relationship with the European Union (EU).

As the second round of talks wraps up in Brussels, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire used a hearing in the French Parliament in Paris on Wednesday evening to take a hard line on what the EU believes the UK owes the bloc in terms of liabilities and obligations.

To drive his point home, he evoked the spirit of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when she won a rebate on Britain’s payments to the central EU budget, complaining that the UK was losing out despite being one of the biggest contributors.

“I will say what Margaret Thatcher used to say: ‘We want our money back’,” Le Maire said, citing the €100-billion figure that has been on the high end of the amounts touted. “We can always debate the amount, but the fact that the United Kingdom must pay what it owes to the European Union budget is a non-negotiable prerequisite at the start of the talks.”

Brexit Secretary David Davis returned to Brussels on Wednesday night and, with his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier, will have lunch together and chair a meeting of negotiators who have spent the past three days thrashing out issues, such as Britain’s financial obligations and the rights of European citizens in the UK.

Stumbling blocks

The so-called Brexit bill has proved the biggest stumbling block, with the two sides setting out vastly different stances on how the UK’s obligations should be calculated. The UK has now acknowledged that it will be on the hook when it leaves the bloc in March 2019, but hasn’t gone much beyond that. British officials spent much of the week quizzing EU negotiators on where they believe the UK is liable. Britain will not commit to a figure until much later in the process.

Negotiators never expected any major breakthroughs during the first week of talks, but the pressure will mount when they return for scheduled sessions at the end of August and in September and October before EU leaders are asked to deem there has been “sufficient progress” at a summit on October 19 and 20. That would enable discussions to begin on a future trading relationship and a possible transition period.

The UK government is keen for talks to move on to trade, but back home the notion of paying the EU is politically toxic, possibly even more so now that Prime Minister Theresa May lost her parliamentary majority in June’s election.

Differences remain also on the protection of rights for EU citizens in the UK and British nationals residing in the EU, with EU officials saying this week’s talks have thrown up some new differences of opinion between the two sides.

Image Credits: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

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