Government to release key Brexit policy papers in next few weeks

Papers expected to cover topics such as customs union and Northern Irish border as No 10 accused of being ‘a bit absent’.

Theresa May is to lift the veil of secrecy around the UK’s Brexit negotiations in the coming weeks, with the publication of key position papers on issues such as Northern Ireland and the customs union.

No 10 confirmed on Monday that a series of policy documents would be made public in an apparent attempt to head off criticism of the UK for failing to tell the EU what it wanted and being insufficiently prepared for talks with Brussels.

Businesses have long been pressing for more clarity on the UK’s proposals for replacing the customs union, which allows easy transfer of goods across the borders of EU member states.

May has so far only said she wants to leave the customs union in order to strike free trade deals with other countries and achieve “frictionless trade”, but the UK is expected to seek to replicate the current arrangements as closely as possible during a transitional period at least.

The issue of Northern Ireland is also pressing for UK negotiators, as Brussels has said it would not proceed to the next stage of talks on the future relationship between the EU and Britain until progress had been made on resolving the border with the Republic of Ireland, as well as agreeing a financial settlement and the status of EU nationals.

The Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said last week that rather than pressing the EU for special status for Northern Ireland post-Brexit, it would be better if the entire UK remained inside a customs union with Europe.

But DUP MPs reject that idea and claim they are getting input into the development of the UK’s position, with the party’s chief whip, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, saying there would be a technical solution for a Brexit border.

No 10’s promise of more detail on the UK’s Brexit policy came as Sir Simon Fraser, a former head of the Foreign Office, accused the government of being “a bit absent” from negotiations because it had not put many suggestions on the table.

“The negotiations have only just begun. I don’t think they have begun particularly promisingly, frankly, on the British side,” said Fraser, who also served as chief of staff to the European trade commissioner in Brussels.

“We haven’t put forward a lot because, as we know, there are differences within the cabinet about the sort of Brexit that we are heading for and until those differences are further resolved I think it’s very difficult for us to have a clear position,” said Fraser, who now advises businesses on Brexit.

“So far we haven’t put much on the table apart from something on the status of nationals, so we are a bit absent from the formal negotiation. We need to demonstrate that we are ready to engage on the substance so that people can understand what is really at stake here and what the options are, so let’s move forward with that.”

May’s spokesman said the government would disagree strongly with Fraser’s comments. “The last two months, we’ve had a constructive start to the negotiations. We’ve covered a significant amount of important ground,” he said.

Government officials argue that the confusion only underlines their view that the key challenges of Brexit are interrelated and cannot be dealt with sequentially in the way Brussels negotiators favour.

Instead, the Brexit secretary, David Davi,s hopes that a series of linked issues can be resolved at once, around the time of a meeting of EU leaders in October. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, does not have a negotiating mandate to discuss future relations before an exit deal is reached.

Davis recently told colleagues he also favoured linking a deal on the divorce settlement to a transition arrangement. This, he said, was because it would help soften the impact of a large payment if it were spread out over several years and in which Britain continued to receive clearly identifiable benefits in exchange.

However, No 10 rejected the reports over the weekend that the UK was now prepared to pay up to €40bn (£36bn) to unwind its legal obligations to the EU.

“In terms of this figure, I don’t recognise it,” May’s spokesman said. “The prime minister made clear in the letter triggering article 50 that the UK and the EU need to discuss a fair settlement of both our rights and obligations as an EU member state.”

A Downing Street source described the figure on Sunday as speculative and wrong, although the government does accept it will need to pay something toward continuing financial obligations.

Günther Oettinger, the EU’s budget commissioner, told Germany’s Bild newspaper in remarks published on Monday that Britain would remain bound by some previous commitments and would “therefore have to transfer funds to Brussels at least until 2020”.

The Treasury still forecasts payments to the EU until 2020 of a totalling £31bn, although it said there were no assumptions about whether they would continue. These include a contribution of £9.9bn next year, £10.5bn in £2019 and £10.4bn in 2020.

The Treasury figures also showed the UK’s budget contribution to the EU has fallen to £8.1bn, its lowest level for five years. The sum is the equivalent to £156m a week, which is less than half the £350m a week that was promised by the Vote Leave campaign. The UK’s gross contribution without factoring in its rebate or payments from EU institutions was about £16.9bn, which still only amounted to £325m a week.

Chuka Umunna, a Labour MP and supporter of Open Britain, said it showed “you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the side of a bus or that you hear from Boris Johnson’s mouth”.