The UK could continue to get farm payments and aid for poorer regions for two years after it leaves the EU, if it agrees to pay into the EU budget until the end of 2020, under plans being considered by EU diplomats.
The potential offer to sweeten the pill of the UK’s Brexit bill is a sketchy idea rather than a detailed proposal, but two sources familiar with the Brexit negotiations confirmed it had been discussed. “It would solve a lot of problems and mean there is no hole [in the EU budget] in 2019-2020,” said one senior source.
The EU wants the UK to respect a pledge made by David Cameron as prime minister when he signed up Britain to the EU’s €1tn budget for 2014-20.
The UK is due to leave the EU in March 2019, 21 months before the end of the seven-year budget. “The fact the EU budget gets messed up because of Brexit is going to cause so much anger,” Guntram Wolff, the director of the Bruegel thinktank, has said. “It will be a nightmare and major issue poisoning the debate.”
The idea shows the EU is open to several varieties of Brexit, as long as it can protect its laws and budget. But it is not a foregone conclusion that the EU’s 27 member states will agree to make the offer. “It could be done if [the British] change the tone of the discussions,” suggested a source.
Neither will the plan cancel out the Brexit bill, although it could knock off €36bn (£32.3bn) from the mooted €75bn net bill, as the UK would remain part of the EU budget.
If the idea were on the table, Theresa May could face accusations of Brexit betrayal from hardline Eurosceptics who want to sever all ties with the EU as quickly as possible. The prime minister has said the UK will stop “making vast annual contributions to the European Union budget”, although the Tory manifesto hinted it would be “reasonable” to make a contribution to participate in some EU programmes.
The plan could refocus attention on the Brexit campaigners such as Boris Johnson, now foreign secretary, and Michael Gove, newly appointed as environment secretary, who travelled on a Vote Leave battlebus emblazoned with a promise of a £350m-a-week bonanza for the NHS, based on incorrect figures on the UK’s contribution to EU coffers.
The UK’s official statistics watchdog rebuked the leave campaign for the “misleading” claim, which it said undermined trust in official statistics. Johnson has since claimed May had promised £350m a week for the NHS, but neither she nor the party manifesto made any such commitment.
The UK Statistics Authority said the UK paid the equivalent of £190m a week into the EU budget in 2010-14, once EU grants to Britain and the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher were stripped out.
If the EU decides to go ahead with this offer, leading Brexiters would have to confront the EU budget reality that member states pay in but also get back grants.
In 2019-20 the UK is due to pay at least £32.3bn into EU coffers, which could rise to £41.5bn without the British rebate. For this membership fee, the UK would get £11.5bn, mostly in farm subsidies and economic aid for poorer regions. Grants to British scientists are not included in these Treasury figures, but the UK is the biggest beneficiary of EU research funding.
Before this proposal was circulating, European politicians had stressed the UK would lose its rebate – worth £9.2bn in 2019-20 – after Brexit. Reimer Böge, a German MEP and veteran of the European parliament’s budgets committee, told the Guardian there should be no rebate for the British outside the EU. “If you want something, you are obliged to pay for it,” he said.