Before Britain can 'check out' there's the small matter of the bill

Downing on politics...

(Anthony Devlin/PA)
(Anthony Devlin/PA)
John Downing

John Downing

The posh phrase is "the single financial settlement" - but most people call it the "the exit bill."

Officially, there is no confirmation of figures. In practice everyone knows it hovers between a low of €65bn and a high of well over €100bn.

We are talking about something which will have a direct bearing on the future funding of Irish farming: the United Kingdom's payment to cover its EU commitments as and when it leaves. The second round of Brexit talks, which began yesterday and were due to continue in Brussels until this Thursday, must finally get serious.

There are a maximum three of these sessions before a decision is to be made about whether or not the Brexit process can move forward to the issue which most interests Ireland. That is the future EU-UK relationship, something which will govern how the Irish Border is to be managed and any tariffs on trade between Ireland and Britain.

Diplomats in Brussels engaged in or closely following this acrimonious EU-UK divorce settlement will quietly concede that the future relationship is far more important than any exit money to be shelled out by London. But amid all the emotive political rhetoric in Britain the "exit bill" has huge political significance with a much weakened Prime Minister, Theresa May, open to allegations of being weak on this.

Nobody believes the chants of rampant "Brexiteers" that the United Kingdom can just walk away. Brexit minister David Davis last Thursday told the British parliament that London acknowledged that it had obligations to the EU. But he didn't dare elaborate even one scintilla beyond that cryptic statement.

The EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, is determined that nothing else can be talked about until this issue is brought to a point where the two sides can agree a methodology to do the sums. If that calculating key was in place things could move on.

That is the place Ireland wants to get things to as quickly as possible. It is also where many British business interests also want to see things.

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Some of the issues involved are simple enough. If Britain were to exit in April 2019, there would still be the guts of two years' contributions agreed for the seven-year bloc funding of the EU for the seven years 2014-2020. Since the UK would be phasing itself out of the trade bloc justifying continued payment might be relatively easy.

Then there are other ongoing issues like Britain's share of commitments in a deal with Turkey to try to stem the huge volumes of migrants coming into the EU. But after that it gets very complicated.

The issue of Britain's share of the European Investment Bank, based in Luxembourg which gives lower-interest loans for public projects across the EU, is increasingly talked about. There are even mentions of how to score Britain's portion of ownership of various EU buildings funded over the years from the EU coffers.

Given the volatile state of British politics since Theresa May's general election debacle on June 10 last, there is no issue so dangerous right now. Whatever the outcome Theresa May will be dubbed "a soft touch." So this issue must be managed with kid gloves and some generosity of presentation will be required on the EU side especially.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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