The reported financial settlement the UK is set to pay on leaving the European Union would be “meeting the obligations we’ve built up, no more or less than that”, one of the cabinet’s leading Brexiters has said.
Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, said the sum of more than £50bn apparently agreed on Tuesday was speculation but underlined the fact that the government did not want to “walk away on bad terms”.
“I don’t think people in this country would expect us to just walk away from things we’ve already said we’d pay for,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Grayling said Britain’s current net contribution to the EU budget was around £10bn a year.
A senior EU official told the Guardian on Tuesday night that the UK appeared ready to honor its share of unpaid bills, loans, pensions and other EU liabilities which could total £53bn to £58bn.
“We have heard the UK wants to come along with the money,” the official said. “We have understood it covers the liabilities and what we consider the real commitments. But we have to see the fine print.”
The key sticking point before the December summit, at which EU leaders will decide if “sufficient progress” has been made on three key issues, is now considered by both sides to be the Irish border, rather than the financial settlement or citizens’ rights.
Grayling said neither side wanted to see a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland but a “sensible” trade deal with the EU would make the issue irrelevant.
“We have already said we absolutely do not want to return to a hard border, we see no reason to do so, we’ve put forward proposals as to how that can be avoided,” he said.
“But, of course, I hope that we’ll end up with a sensible free trade agreement which means that becomes an irrelevant discussion. I don’t see any benefit at all to the United Kingdom or the European Union to having barriers to trade.”
Asked if he would rule out a hard border, he said: “I think we’ve already done that, we’ve said that there are simple ways to make sure that we do not have to have border posts in the way that there were in the past.”
It is expected the European Commission will propose a joint statement for the member states to scrutinize over the weekend before a series of meetings.
One senior diplomat told the Guardian: “The divorce bill should be fine now. That was the big issue. And then it wasn’t.
“The border is a big worry. And I don’t know how they can square that circle. That is the big one now and it is up to the Irish to decide.”
Reports last night on the extent of the financial settlement drew a muted response from some pro-leave MPs. Bernard Jenkin told the Guardian: “It better be worth it!” Others, such as Iain Duncan Smith and Jacob Rees-Mogg, have urged May to hold tight before offering too much.
The environment secretary, Michael Gove, one of the cabinet’s leading Brexiters, is said to be comfortable with the bill going beyond the earlier reported £40bn sum.
However, the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, seen as a key advocate of the referendum campaign claim that Brexit would recoup £350m a week for the NHS, has been more resistant to the suggestion of paying large amounts, previously saying EU officials should “go whistle” over calls for more money.