EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has ramped up the tension over Brexit talks after warning he is trying to “educate” the UK about the price of quitting the European Union.
Barnier’s antagonistic tone underlines how the EU is wants to play hardball with the UK as much as a deterrent to other countries contemplating an exit.
It comes after a terse round of negotiations between Barnier and Brexit Secretary David Davis last week.
On The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Davis branded the EU as “silly” for claiming no progress is being made in the Brexit negotiations, and also dismissed reports the UK is set to pay a £50billion divorce bill as “nonsense” and “completely wrong”.
But Barnier’s highly inflammatory comments made to a conference in Italy on Saturday made clear the men at the centre of the talks take very different positions.
According to the BBC, Barnier said Brexit would be “an educational process” for the UK.
“I have a state of mind - not aggressive ... but I’m not naïve,” he told the Ambrosetti forum.
“There are extremely serious consequences of leaving the single market and it hasn’t been explained to the British people. We intend to teach people … what leaving the single market means.”
Lib Dem Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake said: “However unfortunate Mr Barnier’s turn of phrase, there is a serious underlining point.
“The claims by Brexiteers that leaving would be a doddle and we could have our cake and eat it were the swindle of the century.
“Crashing out of Europe with a ‘no deal’ has the potential to inflict permanent damage on UK jobs and families. That is the hard reality of a ‘hard Brexit’.”
Earlier, the Brexit Secretary hit out at EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s negative attitude in a press conference on Thursday that marked the end of the latest round of talks.
Davis talked up agreement on free healthcare for the million Brits living in the EU as progress, and said discussions around the Brexit bill were taking place on a “line by line” basis.
EU officials are unwilling to discuss a future trade deal with the UK until progress has been made on the financial settlement, leading Davis to say: “That’s the point about the Europeans. They won’t talk about the future. They’ll only talk about so-called divorce proceedings.”
Referring to Barnier, he said: “Of course he wants to put pressure on us, which is why the stance this week in the press conference - bluntly, I think it looked a bit silly, because there plainly were things that we achieved.”
He almost immediately issued a clarification, saying: “The commission [looked silly], not so much him. I like him, I’ve known him for 20 years.”
Two Sunday newspapers have reported Theresa May is preparing to hand over £50bn cash to settle the UK’s financial commitments to the EU.
The Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday both claim that as May’s General Election blunder weakened her Brexit negotiating position, the pay-off is higher than it would have been earlier this year.
“It’s nonsense, the story is completely wrong,” Davis said on Marr.
Some European figures have claimed the UK should pay as much as €100billion in order to cover items including pensions costs of officials and funds for previously agreed projects.
Davis claimed Government officials were going through the EU’s demands “line by line” in order to establish how much the UK actually owes Brussels, and Britain would not be making a “counter” offer until this work had been completed.
Davis said of the EU negotiating team: “They are finding it difficult because we’ve got good lawyers. We gave them a two-and-a-half-hour presentation – they even complained about that.”
The Brexit Secretary claimed that while there is no way for the EU to force the UK to pay a divorce bill, living up to any financial responsibilities would help Britain “leave in an orderly and smooth manner.”
He said: “What we’ve said all along is we are a country that meets its international obligations – but they’ve got to be that.
“They may not be legal ones, they may be moral ones, they may be political ones, but we meet our international obligations.”
The Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday reported that ministers want to stagger the divorce bill payments over a three year period in order to present it as being at the same level as the current £13.1billion paid to the EU per year, after the UK’s rebate has been applied.
Downing Street said they do not recognise the plan.