LONDON — Britain’s slow move away from the European Union took a new twist Sunday as the new Brexit chief suggested that Britain might not pay its $51 billion divorce bill if no trade agreement with the European Union is reached.
Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab told the Sunday Telegraph that there must be “conditionality” between Britain making the hefty exit payment and its ability to create a new relationship with the EU.
“You can’t have one side fulfilling its side of the bargain and the other side not, or going slow, or failing to commit on its side,” he said, implying that the threat of withholding payment might get Brexit talks back on track.
Britain and the EU remain far apart on terms of a new trade setup. British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party is also deeply split over what Brexit policy to support. Raab replaced David Davis, who resigned two weeks ago to protest May’s “soft” Brexit plan.
May has faced a substantial rebellion from party colleagues who favor a complete break with the EU — a so-called “hard” Brexit — rather than May’s proposal, which calls for a “common rule book” with European nations that would govern trade in goods.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier is also lukewarm on May’s latest proposal, asking many questions about its viability Friday. Raab, however, says he is still hopeful a deal can be concluded by October so the EU parliament and national parliaments of EU nations can ratify the deal before Britain leaves in March.
“Actually the fact Michel Barnier is not blowing it out the water but asking questions is a good positive sign — that’s what we negotiate on,” Raab said, looking forward to more Brexit discussions Thursday in Brussels.
But former Prime Minister John Major warned that the hardliners in his own Conservative Party are making the situation worse.
“The danger at the moment is that they will frustrate every move the government seeks to make and by accident, because nothing can be agreed, we will crash out without a deal,” he said on the BBC.
Major said holding a second referendum to gauge public sentiment now that more is known about the true impact of Brexit would be “morally justified” because Brexit advocates made so many inflated claims ahead of the June 2016 vote.
“If you look back at the Leave campaign, a great many of the promises they made were fantasy promises,” he said. “We now know they are not going to be met.”