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Liam Fox came under fire today for accusing the EU of using “blackmail” to extract a multi-billion-pound Brexit payment from the UK.
The International Trade Secretary was accused by a former Whitehall chief of exposing the UK’s “weaker hand” by making the protest.
The comments came after Brexit talks in Brussels ended in an ill-tempered stalemate, with European Union negotiator Michel Barnier claiming trade discussions would be blocked until Britain agrees how to pay a “divorce” bill running into tens of billions of pounds.
Hitting back, Mr Fox said Britain “can’t be blackmailed into paying a price”. Speaking in Japan at the end of Theresa May’s three-day visit, he told ITV News: “We think we should begin discussions on the final settlement because that’s good for business, and it’s good for the prosperity both of the British people and of the rest of the people of the European Union.”
But Lord Macpherson, the former permanent secretary to the Treasury, said Mr Fox had made a negotiating gaffe. “‘Blackmail’ is the perpetual cry of the smaller negotiator with the weaker hand,” the former mandarin tweeted, and added the hashtag #getagrip.
In contrast to his Cabinet colleague, Brexit Secretary David Davis declared himself a “determined optimist” that the talks will end in a good deal. In a speech in Washington this afternoon, he will say: “I fundamentally believe that a good deal is in the interests of both the UK and the EU and the whole of the developed world.”
Speaking to US businesspeople, Mr Davis will insist that Brexit will not diminish the UK’s global presence.
He will say: “By working together with our closest friends and allies we can tackle some of the greatest social and economic challenges we face.
“But the answer to that concern is not to turn inwards and become isolationist. And that is where a strong, outward-looking United Kingdom can play an instrumental role.”
The third round of Brexit talks ended in Brussels yesterday with the two sides far apart over the UK’s exit bill.
Mr Barnier gave a negative assessment of the negotiations, saying there had been no “decisive progress” on key issues.
He said the two sides were still “quite far” away from being able to start talks on future trading arrangements. Mr Davis called for more “flexibility and imagination” on the part of the EU to allow all the issues to be debated at the same time.
UK business leaders warned that further delays were damaging. Colin Stanbridge, of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said: “We certainly can’t linger over negotiations, … business confidence has been hugely impacted by uncertainty.” A report today by the new All-Party Parliamentary Group on EU Relations said leaving the EU customs union would be “reckless and economically dangerous”. It listed five ways that “chaos” would hit London if the UK left the barrier-free trade club — it would cause chaos at Heathrow by delaying goods; clog up the Eurotunnel; require new infrastructure at major ports; overburden HM Revenue & Customs collectors; and “significantly increase costs for businesses across most sectors”.
Labour MP Chuka Umunna and Tory Anna Soubry, who co-chair the group, said an “ideological choice” to quit would “surrender the best economic option.”
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