EU negotiator Michel Barnier: Initial Brexit focus will be on Ireland, the 'divorce bill' and expats
THE EUROPEAN Commission's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has promised to focus on Ireland in the initial phase of talks - and will visit here next week.
He was speaking as he set out the Commission's detailed negotiating guidelines for the first phase of withdrawal talks, expected to begin in earnest after the June 8 general election.
Speaking in Brussels, Mr Barnier said the opening phase of negotiations would focus on the financial settlement, the status of expatriate citizens and the future border between the UK and EU in Ireland.
"I will pay great attention to the situation in Ireland... I will be going to Ireland next week," he said.
What he described as the "unique circumstances and challenges" of Ireland in the wake of the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement will, he said, "require flexible and imaginative solutions".
But Mr Barnier also warned that it is an "illusion" to think that the process of Britain leaving the European Union will be quick or painless.
His comments came as news reports suggested that the Commission may present the UK with a €100 billion euro "divorce bill", sharply increased from the previous estimates of €60bn.
But Britain's Brexit Secretary David Davis rejected suggestions that the UK will foot a bill on that scale, saying Brussels will only receive what it is legally owed.
Mr Davis also dismissed as "laughable" reports that Prime Minister Theresa May would be barred from negotiating with her counterparts.
In a press conference in Brussels, Mr Barnier said that the first phase of negotiations would focus on the financial settlement, the status of expatriate citizens and the future border between the UK and EU in Ireland.
He insisted that the the so-called divorce bill was not a punishment of the UK for leaving, but simply a "settling of accounts".
"The UK must put a great deal of energy and effort into these three issues over the next weeks and months and that will increase the chances of making a deal," said Mr Barnier.
"Some have created the illusion that Brexit would have no material impact on our lives or that negotiations can be concluded quickly and painlessly. This is not the case.
"We need sound solutions, we need legal precision and this will take time."
At a press conference in London, Mr Davis said the British public wanted the best possible outcome from the talks, adding: "We do that in the negotiating room, not by negotiating with a megaphone."
He acknowledged there would be "tough times" during the process "when you come under pressure, and this is one of those times".
Mr Davis said he did not recognise the numbers being "bandied around" for the Brexit fee.
And he insisted that Theresa May would play a full part in the negotiations.
"We are not entering the negotiations as a supplicant," he said, and the Prime Minister would remain a full member of the European Council until the date of Brexit.
"We will decide the structure of our negotiating team, not the EU," he added.
Mr Barnier added that the financial withdrawal agreement was not a punishment or an exit bill, but a settling of accounts.
He said the UK would have to "close the account" in a "single financial settlement" which "will cover all the financial relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union. All the commitments entered into as a member of the union".
Mr Barnier said: "Now, this is not a punishment, nor is it an exit tax of some kind. The union and the United Kingdom have mutual commitments. They have committed to financing projects and programmes together. We decided these programmes together. We benefit from them together, and we finance them together.
"Basically, we have to close the account, and it is no more and no less. No punishment. There is no Brexit bill."
Mr Barnier said he believed the Commission's calculation of Britain's liabilities should be "incontestable" and that there could be "explosive" consequences if it was not met.
The figure will include not only UK commitments to fund the EU's 2014-20 budget, but also EU programmes of support for countries like Turkey and the Ukraine, he said.
"This all has to be totted up," he said. "We have entered into rigorous and objective work which should be incontestable and which will have to take account of the commitments.
"I can't understand why here and there I hear mentions of punishment (regarding) the exit bill, the Brexit bill. That is not the case. Commitments have been made and these commitments have to be honoured, these responsibilities have to be honoured."
He insisted: "We are not trying to create problems. We wish to resolve problems, and the way to resolve a problem is to be objective and rigorous in our approach, not over-dramatic.
"We have to be rigorous in our approach to clearing these accounts, because otherwise the situation might be explosive, if we have to stop programmes. Can you imagine the political problems which might arise?"
Mr Barnier said the agreement with the UK will have to have effective implementation and dispute settlement mechanisms, and, wherever European Union law is involved, it will depend on the rulings of European Court of Justice.
The ECJ would "quite clearly" have the competence to adjudicate on the rights of EU citizens "well after the date of the withdrawal of the UK", he said.
More to follow