Britain will “meet our obligations” as it leaves the EU and pay for financial commitments made as a member, a Brexiteering Cabinet minister has said amid reports that a “divorce bill” of much as £50bn has been agreed.
Transport secretary Chris Grayling refused to comment on “speculation” about the final figure but acknowledged “the price” the UK built up as a member.
Officials close to the negotiations were reported as saying there was broad agreement on a framework for the UK to settle liabilities expected to total around €45-55bn (£40-£49 billion).
If confirmed, the move could clear the way for Prime Minister Theresa May to finally achieve her goal of moving Brexit negotiations on to the issue of trade.
But differences with Dublin over the status of the border in Ireland could still block progress at the European Council summit on December 14-15.
The reports come just a day after former Cabinet minister Priti Patel claimed Britain was ‘ill-equipped’ for Brexit talks and needed to take a tougher line with Brussels by telling EU leaders to ‘sod off’ over the divorce bill.
Mr Grayling told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’ve been very clear that we will meet our obligations as a member of the European Union as we leave.
“We don’t want to walk away on bad terms, we don’t want to walk away from obligations that we built up during our membership.
“Our goal is to be good friends and good neighbours with the European Union and to trade freely with the European Union, to carry on as friends.
“The price is meeting the obligations that we built up, no more, no less than that.
“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.”
Mr Grayling reiterated the Government’s insistence that it does not want to see a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and claimed 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 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 were [there] in the past.
“[Brexit secretary] David Davis put forward those proposals very early on and we think that there’s the basis there for a sensible agreement that means there is no hard border.”
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier stressed “we are not there yet” on reaching agreement on the divorce bill, the Irish border, and citizens’ rights – the other withdrawal issue on which “sufficient progress” must be made for trade talks to begin.
Speaking at the Berlin Security Conference, he said: “We are awaiting sufficient progress from London on the following three points: the rights of European citizens in the United Kingdom and of British citizens in the EU, issues relating to the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, fulfilment of the financial obligations entered into during the United Kingdom’s membership of the Union.
“We are not there yet.
“The work on the three main subjects continues this week in a constructive spirit with the UK.
“The next European Council will take place in 15 days’ time. If real ‘sufficient progress’ is actually made, the European Council will be able to open the discussion of a possible transitional period.
“Then the member states will define in 2018 the framework of this new partnership with the UK.”
The reported deal on the divorce bill was denounced by former Ukip leader Nigel Farage as a “sellout”.
“I have always argued that no deal is better than a bad deal,” he said.
“Make no mistake about it – 55 billion euro to leave the EU is a very, very bad deal.”
A recent poll suggested that as few as 11% of voters would regard a bill of £30bn or more as acceptable.
But it is unlikely that either the EU or UK will ever put a final figure on the settlement, which covers a complex array of liabilities including funding for projects to which Britain signed up as an EU member, loans which have not yet been repaid, and pensions for European Commission civil servants.
Unofficial calculations have put the gross figure at around €100bn (£88bn), but deductions for items such as the UK rebate and Britain’s share of the European Investment Bank could reduce the net sum to about half that.
Payments would be made over many years as liabilities fall due, so the final total may not be known for decades.
Asked about reports of agreement on the financial settlement, a British Government source said: “I don’t recognise it at all.
“There are ongoing discussions in Brussels this week.”
A spokesman for Mr Barnier said: “We would not have any comment on it.”
But the BBC reported that officials on both sides of the talks were now discussing whether a paper can be prepared by next Monday, setting out formally what has been agreed so far, as a way of “parking” the divorce issues to allow negotiations to begin on trade and the transition to the future relationship.
Mrs May is due to meet European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday for make-or-break talks which could determine whether Mr Barnier is able to declare that sufficient progress has been made to move the talks on to their second phase.
A recommendation from the French diplomat would spark intensive discussions in EU capitals over the 10 days before the European Council summit, at which any of the 27 remaining member states could wield a veto.
Downing Street declined to comment on an ITV report that the Cabinet agreed on Tuesday to a three-point package to secure a divorce deal.
Two of the reported points – a pledge to keep the Irish border open and approval for a financial settlement topping £40bn – were little different from what had previously been revealed.
But a supposed proposal to resolve concerns over the future rights of EU citizens living in the UK, by permitting the Supreme Court to refer issues up to the European Court of Justice where it felt unqualified to adjudicate, would be likely to prove more contentious.
One senior Whitehall source dismissed as “nonsense” reports that this had been agreed by Cabinet.
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said: “Around £45bn would appear to be the price Johnson and Gove et al are willing to pay for a deluded vision of an imperial Britain post-Brexit.
“This vision already sees the UK with higher inflation and debt, falling investment and less influence in the world.
“And this acrimonious divorce settlement will merely be the down-payment.
“The hit to the UK economy of pulling out of the single market and customs threatens to dwarf this £45 billion, with falling tax revenues and companies leaving the UK.
“Only the Lib Dems are fighting to save Britain’s free trade with its largest market and to give the people a say on the final deal.”
Commons Speaker John Bercow has granted Labour’s Chris Leslie an urgent question on the costs of Brexit.
It will take place in the Commons after Prime Minister’s Questions.