BRUSSELS: Britain must reach a deal on what it owes the EU and on the fate of European citizens post-Brexit before talks can start on a future trade deal, EU negotiator Michel Barnier said Wednesday.
Frenchman Barnier’s comments were the first major statement of intent from Brussels since Britain announced on Monday that it will trigger the two-year divorce process on March 29.
He set out what he said were the key areas including the exit bill, the rights of 4.5 million EU nationals living in Britain and vice versa, and what will happen to the border in Northern Ireland.
“When a country leaves the union, there is no punishment, there is no price to pay to leave. But we must settle the accounts, no more, no less,” Barnier, a former European commissioner and French minister, said here.
“We will not ask the British to pay a single euro for something they have not agreed to as a member,” he told an EU regional institution.
Barnier said Britain had outstanding obligations for regional funding, development funds and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker’s investment plan, which together total obligations for the whole EU of more than 600 billion euros.
“All these programs, we approved them together at 28, with the United Kingdom, we finance them together at 28, we benefit from them, at 28,” he said.
After last year’s Brexit vote, EU officials said Britain’s exit bill would be around 60 billion euros, but Barnier’s team is now backing away from mentioning a set sum.
“Uncertainty” over the fate of EU citizens in Britain and British nationals residing in European countries must also be resolved, he said.
He gave examples such as Polish students wondering if they can continue to access universities in Britain, Romanian healthcare workers in British hospitals and British pensioners in Spain unsure whether they will continue to receive benefits.
“Guaranteeing their rights as European citizens in the long term will be our absolute priority from the very start of the negotiations,” he said.
Talks on a future trade deal to replace Britain’s membership of the European single market cannot start until the terms of Britain’s exit are all settled, Barnier added.
This would take “several months certainly,” he added.
London has argued the two paths can be negotiated in parallel.
“The quicker we agree on the principles of an orderly withdrawal the sooner we can prepare these future relations,” Barnier said.
“Conversely, if we do not end these uncertainties and push them to the end of negotiations, we will be headed for failure.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May will formally trigger Article 50 of the EU’s treaties next Wednesday, beginning a two-year countdown of talks before Britain actually leaves the EU.
Barnier said a transitional deal—to cover areas that could not be agreed within the two-year period but would form part of an eventual, full trade deal—”could be necessary.”
The 27 EU leaders without Britain will hold a special summit on April 29 in Brussels to set out their political guidelines for the Brexit negotiations.
But actual talks will not start for several more weeks as the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has to set out more detailed plans, and then ministers have to give Barnier an official mandate.
Barnier finally warned of the dangers of not reaching a deal before Britain leaves, saying it would have “the most grave consequences for all involved.”