LONDON • A leading Brexit minister in Theresa May’s government was forced into a painful political admission — the UK is legally bound to settle its divorce bill even if it doesn’t get a future trade deal with the European Union (EU).
To make the bitter pill of £39 billion (RM206.7 billion) easier to swallow for the public and Brexit cheerleaders, May has been insisting that the financial settlement and a freetrade deal are part of the same package. The EU has always been clear they’re separate.
After a grilling by lawmakers, Suella Braverman was forced to acknowledge that Parliament will vote on paying the so-called Brexit bill before the legal text of a future trade agreement is ready. Any decision to halt payments — which are due to continue for years — would require a renegotiation.
It’s particularly significant that the admission comes from Braverman, a Brexit campaigner who used to head a group of some 60 Conservative eurosceptic lawmakers. Their current leader, Jacob Rees- Mogg has been especially critical of May and insists the UK should not pay a penny without getting a trade deal in return.
It’s a toxic topic and one likely to inflame hardliners worried that May is making too many concessions, including the latest plan to maintain ties to the customs union for a number of years to get around the problem of how to keep an open border in Northern Ireland.
It’s also ammunition for anti-Brexit lawmakers trying to thwart the divorce.
British officials have said in private that they’re looking to make the payments conditional on sealing that future trading relationship, conscious of how unpopular it would be domestically for Britain to be seen to continue to pay billions of pounds into the EU budget without securing a commercial agreement.
Asked four times by lawmakers on the House of Commons Brexit Committee if the government would try to insert conditions tying payments to a future trade deal, Braverman dodged the question before finally citing a “good faith” clause in the divorce agreement.
“If there was going to be a change in circumstances whereby those payments were to stop, that would require renegotiating and looking at what’s been agreed when it comes to the financial agreement with the EU,” Braverman said. “The duty of good faith should not be ignored in this context. It’s more than just words.”
The line of questioning was unrelenting as lawmaker after lawmaker returned to the topic. Hilary Benn, the chair of the committee, demanded a “yes or no” answer on whether the government would attempt to insert some conditions into the withdrawal agreement.
At one point things got so uncomfortable for Braverman that Rees-Mogg, part of the panel of questioners, tried to come to her rescue by offering her an answer.
Lawmakers have to vote on the Brexit deal later this year.
Brexit Secretary David Davis has said it will be hard for Parliament to approve the bill unless they have a detailed idea about what kind of trade deal is on offer.