Michel Barnier accused of "backtracking" after Brexit divorce bill ultimatum climbdown

 
Catherine Neilan
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Barnier is no longer holding the UK to a strict ultimatum - but wants to know what's on the table before 13 and 14 December (Source: Getty)

The EU's chief negotiator has been accused of "backtracking" over threats to block trade talks unless the UK put forward its divorce bill offer by today (24 November).

A fortnight ago, after yet another formal round of talks ended without progress, Michel Barnier told reporters the UK had two weeks to give "clarity" on the financial settlement, or risk trade and transition talks being blocked at December's European Council.

Although a £40bn sum is thought to have been touted by Theresa May during a Cabinet meeting this week - a figure previously nodded through by backbenchers - nothing approaching a formal offer has been made and no figure has been communicated to Brussels.

In face of missing its self-imposed deadline, the European Commission has dialled down its rhetoric.

Brussels is no longer holding the UK to a "strict ultimatum", but wants to know what offer will be on the table ahead of the European Council, on 13 and 14 December, City A.M understands. This is to enable member states to decide whether sufficient progress has been made ahead of the summit.

"An offer the day before is not something that is done," one insider said.

But Barnier's change of stance has been seized on by Westminster.

Kit Malthouse, who sits on the influential Treasury select committee, told City A.M.: "It's good to see Barnier backtracking on what was already a rather ill-advised suggestion. The EU will always try to use time pressure to squeeze the UK and we shouldn't fall for it."

Despite this, there are still concerns that there has been a "hardening of their position", in particular demanding a specific figure or methodology, which was never in the original framework agreed.

Even privately, however, both sides emphasise the "constructive" nature of the official talks, which are expected to resume ahead of the summit, potentially as early as the end of next week.

Meanwhile Theresa May continues to make overtures to her European counterparts. Tomorrow she will meet with European Council president Donald Tusk, and she is due to attend another dinner with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on 4 December, where a offer may be put forward.

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