Boris Johnson insisted on Sunday the UK would not pay the £39bn divorce bill in full in the event of a no-deal Brexit on October 31, as EU officials said it was “squarely and firmly” up to Britain to find a solution to the vexed issue of the Irish border.
At the G7 summit in Biarritz, the UK prime minister held a cordial meeting with Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, albeit with no sign of a breakthrough on a revised Brexit deal.
Mr Johnson said the chances of a deal were “improving”, but it was “touch and go” whether one could be struck.
The prime minister is seeking to renegotiate the UK-EU withdrawal agreement finalised by his predecessor Theresa May — notably by removing the so-called backstop that is intended to prevent the return of a hard Irish border. The EU leaders have put the onus on Britain to come up with viable solutions.
Mr Johnson said the UK would not be obliged to hand over a significant portion of the £39bn divorce bill if a no-deal Brexit happened on October 31.
“If we come out [of the EU] without an agreement it is certainly true that the £39bn is no longer, strictly speaking, owed,” he told ITV. “There will be very substantial sums available to our country to spend on our priorities. It’s not a threat, it’s a simple fact.”
A Downing Street spokesperson declined to say how much of the divorce bill the UK would pay in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Mr Johnson is insisting on the UK leaving the EU on October 31, with or without a deal.
Some of the £39bn divorce bill arises because the UK has pledged contributions towards the EU budget that have not yet been paid. Britain is also being asked to contribute towards EU staff pension costs that were incurred before Brexit.
The EU has consistently pushed back against UK suggestions it should not have to pay part or all of the £39bn divorce bill. An EU official said the money would fall due even in the event of a no-deal Brexit, since it was linked to financial commitments entered into by Britain.
The official added: “This is all about the obligations of the UK. For us, it’s due whatever the circumstances. It will be calculated on the exit of the UK.”
A senior EU diplomat said the talks between Mr Johnson and Mr Tusk had taken place in a “positive atmosphere”, with Brexit taking up about half of their time, but there was no discussion of the £39bn divorce bill.
The diplomat underscored the scepticism among the other 27 EU member states that the UK has viable alternative arrangements that will remove the need for the Irish backstop.
“The ball is really squarely and firmly in the UK court,” he said. “They have been telling the press they have new ideas and eventually they will come up. But they didn’t come up today.
“The brutal fact is that there is nothing. Alternative arrangements have always been part of the agreement — but we still don’t know what they look like.”
However, the diplomat said it was “reassuring” that one of Mr Johnson’s first points to Mr Tusk was he did not want a no-deal Brexit.
The two men agreed to meet again on the margins of the UN general assembly in New York in September, he added.
EU27 officials were keen to sidestep what they see as a possible attempt by the UK to blame them in the event of chaos after a no-deal Brexit.
They stressed that they are ready to take seriously any credible UK suggestions for changes to the political declaration on future relations between the two sides, but not the withdrawal agreement.
Mr Johnson appeared keen to temper expectations about a breakthrough on a revised Brexit deal, while also emphasising that the EU was engaging with him.
He told Sky News there was still an opportunity to strike a deal, noting a “change of mood” among EU leaders.
Two Sunday newspapers reported that Downing Street was eyeing a general election in mid-October, based on the premise that, if the Conservatives won, it would give Mr Johnson a mandate to secure a revised deal with the EU.
But Number 10 insiders said the public continues to strongly oppose an election and the government will not be seeking one. “The PM is not planning on that,” said a UK official. The focus instead would be on delivering on the outcome of the 2016 referendum.
Downing Street sidestepped a newspaper report that Mr Johnson is considering suspending parliament in September, potentially for several weeks, in order to stop MPs from thwarting a no-deal on October 31.
“The prime minister is clear that he is not going to stop MPs debating Brexit in parliament,” said a senior government official.