New Brexit battle as top Eurocrat tells Theresa May: You'll have to pay us until 2020

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Theresa May clashed with Brussels today as a senior commissioner said Britain must continue paying to the European Union “at least until 2020”.

Günther Oettinger, European commissioner for budget and human resources, said payments to the EU coffers could not stop at the moment of Brexit in March 2019. But senior Government sources insisted that large scale payments would have to end after Brexit.

The skirmish came as:

  • Former head of the diplomatic service Sir Simon Fraser claimed Cabinet “differences” on a future EU relationship had undermined negotiations. 

  • Government sources said Mrs May would publish position papers on the UK’s demands, starting with details of a proposed transition period, when back from holiday next week. Further papers will cover the future of the customs union and the Northern Ireland border.

The latest clash came after No 10 claimed that reports of a broad agreement for Britain to pay a total of around £36 billion to the EU as a Brexit settlement were “inaccurate speculation”.

However, it is in line with the ballpark of between £30 billion and £40 million which was revealed as widely accepted in Whitehall by the Evening Standard a month ago. 

Mr Oettinger insisted the UK must “honour its obligations” by continuing payments for a year or longer. The demand clashed with Mrs May’s repeated insistence there will be no “vast sums” paid to the EU after 2019.

Senior Conservative eurosceptics reacted angrily to Mr Oettinger and urged Mrs May to tear up the cash demand.

Mr Oettinger told German daily Bild: “London will have to transfer funds to Brussels at least until 2020.” He conceded that Britain would in the end pay less, forcing Germany and other countries to meet a shortfall.  “I assume that the missing British billions will be compensated by a mix of savings and higher contributions from the member states,” he said.

A UK Government official said the size of any payment was a matter for negotiations, adding: “We have already said we will meet our obligations in line with international law. We have also said the payment of vast sums to the EU will end.”

Conservative Brexit-backer MP John Redwood said Mrs May should refuse to pay anything. He said a £36 billion settlement was “fanciful”.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson recently said the EU could “go whistle” for money — but his parliamentary aide Conor Burns reportedly conceded there would be payments.

Sir Simon, speaking to BBC radio, said Brexit negotiations had begun badly because the UK side had been “a bit absent” due to splits.

“I don’t think [the negotiations] have begun particularly promisingly, frankly, on the British side,” he said.

“We haven’t put forward a lot because there are differences within the Cabinet about the sort of Brexit that we are heading for and until those differences are further resolved I think it’s very difficult for us to have a clear position.”

Downing Street hopes the position papers out this month will convince critics the Government has an agreed negotiating stance on key issues.

The first paper next week is set to confirm that the Cabinet wants a transition of up to three years to smooth out Brexit and avoid a cliff edge. The Government also wants to give a line on how it sees the future relationship with the EU’s customs union.

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