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Now talk nice - EU script to help May settle Brexit bill

EU leaders will coax Theresa May over the next two months into parting with tens of billions of euros in return for a post-Brexit trade deal.

British Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: AFP

BRUSSELS - Diplomatic theatrics at last week’s Brussels summit revealed how European Union leaders will coax Theresa May over the next two months into parting with tens of billions of euros in return for a post-Brexit trade deal.

The British prime minister gave away nothing hardliners in her Conservative cabinet can beat her with. She stuck to earlier vague concessions about honouring commitments and insisting a “Brexit bill”, which the EU reckons at around 60 billion euros (£53.09 billion), must be part of a package deal on what Britain’s relationship with the EU will be once it leaves in March 2019.

Sticking to their own script, the other 27 states gave May until the next regular summit in eight weeks to improve an offer officials estimate at about 20 billion euros if she wants them to start discussing future trade ties. Miss that deadline and, the EU says, time will be running out for any deal.

Yet between the lines of well-rehearsed arguments that have hit “deadlock” in the view of the EU negotiator, the outlines of a political fix are emerging. It may create leeway to get round an impasse that is in neither side’s interest and which has left businesses fearing the legal limbo of a messy divorce.

In essence, the 27 need to trust May that Britain will pay much more than is on the table but understand her difficulties in naming a figure by December, which could spark revolt at home and derail the process. In return, they seem likely to let slip more hints of what kind of future relationship she might secure.

The EU position is “solid”, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni told reporters after the talks, but also “flexible”.

It was unrealistic, he said, to expect May to sell a precise demand for money in December. Equally, she could not expect the EU to negotiate a future trade deal without knowing roughly what outstanding items Britain would pay for. But defining those items could, Gentiloni said, be done “in the most politically manageable way possible for our British friends”.

Even the roughest of definitions will let commentators work out numbers. But as a senior diplomat from another major EU power put it: “We don’t want to go public with a bald figure. If it’s on the front page of The Sun, the whole process is dead.”

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