Brexiters trying to 'bluff' UK's readiness for no-deal scenario, says Macron

Daniel Boffey, Rowena Mason and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels
Emmanuel Macron said talks on the UK’s divorce bill from the EU were ‘not even halfway there’. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

Emmanuel Macron has accused Brexiters of seeking to “bluff” the EU into softening its negotiating stance by championing a no-deal scenario, in a dramatic intervention at a summit of European leaders.

The French president said such an outcome was “in no case” part of the discussions, in an apparent reference to reports that the Brexit secretary, David Davis, was planning to positively present a plan to the UK cabinet for Britain to strike of the EU without a deal.

“There is one negotiator on the British side under the political authority of Theresa May. At no moment has Theresa May ever raised a ‘no deal’ as an option,” said Macron.

“If there are noises, bluff, false information by secondary actors or spectators to this discussion, that is … just life in these matters, or in the media. But in no case is it part of the discussions.”

He added that there was no question of the EU softening its demands to help May avoid political problems at home. “It’s not about making concessions,” he said.

During a press conference at the end of the European council summit in Brussels on Friday, he added: “I would say we are far from having reached the necessary financial commitments before we can open phase two [of the talks]. We are not halfway there.”

Macron said the costs of Brexit were unavoidable as he dismissed the British prime minister’s divorce bill offer of €20bn (£17.8bn) as “not halfway there”, and insisted that the UK government would need to make a “substantial financial effort” to break the deadlock over the talks.

The EU27’s negotiating guidelines for the two-year Brexit talks stipulate that they must take place in two phases: separation and “orderly withdrawal”, followed by future relationship. Only when the EU27 decide “sufficient progress” has been made on phase one can phase two begin.

Broadly, phase one is about providing “clarity and certainty” to people and businesses on Brexit’s consequences and agreeing a sum covering the commitments the UK made as an EU member: avoiding a legal vacuum, protecting citizens’ rights, solving the Irish border, and reaching a financial settlement.

Phase two of the talks will then focus on agreeing the “framework” of the future trading relationship between the UK and the EU. A transition period can also be agreed as part of this second stage, but the detail of the future relationship can only be worked out once the UK has left.

Britain wants to move to stage two fast, but in order to keep as much leverage as possible in talks on the future relationship aims to delay agreeing the financial settlement as long as possible. The EU27 are adamant that all phase one issues must be addressed to their satisfaction before any talk of the future relationship.

The Guardian understands that Brussels has now settled on €60bn as the expected landing zone for any deal, less than some estimates but considerably more than many in the British cabinet may be able to stomach.

Earlier on Friday, May said the UK was examining “line by line” how much it should pay the EU when it leaves the union. She did not deny she had told EU leaders on Thursday night that her Florence speech was “not the final word” on what Britain was willing to pay as a financial settlement for Brexit.

Asked whether it was conceivable that the total bill could reach €60bn, she did not dismiss the sum out of hand; unlike Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, who has previously said Brussels can “go whistle” for such an amount.

“I’ve been very clear on where we are in relation to the financial settlement,” May said. “I’ve set out the reassurance to our European colleagues and we will go through that line by line in relation to the commitments that we’ve made in our membership.

“And I’ve also said in the past, if there are particular programmes where we wish to continue to be a member then of course we would look at paying relevant costs in relation to that, programmes such as science and research, and perhaps some of the justice issues.”

In their formal conclusions – agreed in just 90 seconds by the leaders – the EU27 said they aimed to move to the second phase of negotiations “as soon as possible” and would reassess the state of progress at the next summit beginning on 14 December. But they noted that Britain had so far made no “firm and concrete commitment” to settle all of its obligations.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said a breakthrough in December “depends to a large extent” on the UK, adding: “The topic of financial commitments is the dominating issue in that regard.”

The Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said detail on the UK’s bill had still to be worked out. “There wasn’t anything new on the financial solution. That’s still ongoing,” he said. “Prime Minister May has indicated that no European state should have to pay more or receive less than would have been the case had they not been leaving, that they would honour their existing commitments.”

The president of the European council, Donald Tusk, offered an olive branch to the British government by promising the EU would take account of UK proposals on future ties as it talks internally about the future.

Tusk, who chairs EU leadership summits, said he wanted to be a “positive motivator” to get Brexit talks moving onto trade negotiations from December.

“My impression is that the reports of the deadlock between the EU and the UK have been exaggerated,” Tusk told reporters after the summit. “While progress is not sufficient, it doesn’t mean there is no progress at all.”

He also said he wanted to “reassure our British friends that in our internal work we will take account of proposals presented by them”. The British government has published a series of position papers on the UK’s ambitions for the divorce and future relationship. But the EU has refused to discuss any of the future papers, which cover future customs arrangements, security and foreign policy, until the divorce was settled.

Tusk’s emollient message contrasted with the tougher tone of the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who warned last week of a “disturbing deadlock” in the talks.

It was also undercut by Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European commission, who commented acerbically: “In my rhetoric I would have used the word deadlock four times, not only three times.”

Standing alongside Tusk, Juncker also rebuffed May’s plea for help in selling a Brexit deal to the British public. “I would think that Mrs May has all the strength she needs to have the British people understanding what we are achieving as a final result.”

Juncker also criticised the “superficiality” of the British press, as well as UK politicians talking up a no-deal Brexit. “When some in the UK are pleading the cause of no deal no one explains what that will mean. We need a British way of carrying out collective education because nobody explained in detail to British people what Brexit meant.”