The Brexit divorce bill isn’t on the table yet but it’s already provoking plenty of debate – and quite a bit of anger. Figures bandied about have ranged from the tens of billions upwards, with some speculation the final demand could be as much as 100bn euros. Ministers have done their best to avoid being drawn on a figure which wouldn’t be acceptable, with David Davis coming closest by saying Britain will not pay 100bn. Now, Boris Johnson has waded in. The Foreign Secretary told the House of Commons that:
“I think that the sums that I have seen … seem to me to be extortionate and I think go whistle is an entirely appropriate expression.”
What seems clear from Boris’s remarks is that there is no chance of the government agreeing to a 12-figure bill (i.e. 100bn euros). That isn’t to say that an 11-figure bill is out of the question though. So while Boris will win some fans having told the EU to ‘go whistle’ – and won’t make any more enemies in Brussels, given he is hardly that popular there anyway – it’s important to remember that he isn’t saying Britain won’t pay up.
Boris is hinting though that this is one area that the government will be prepared to stand its ground on. The reason for this is simple: Britain believes it has a strong hand to play here. After all, the House of Lords’ EU Financial Affairs Committee says that walking away without paying a penny is, legally speaking, an option; the “strictly legal position of the UK on this issue appears to be strong”, their report makes clear. Don’t expect that to happen and both sides do clearly still want a deal. But Boris’s comments show that, on the issue of any divorce bill at least, the government is feeling confident – and that there remains such a thing as a price not worth paying.