LONDON (Reuters) - Britain would consider making payments to the European Union after it leaves to achieve the best possible access for businesses to the bloc’s markets, Brexit minister David Davis said on Thursday.
The government is formulating its negotiating position ahead of formal divorce talks next year, and businesses have been seeking reassurance that it won’t seek a “hard Brexit” which would prioritize curbing immigration over remaining in the EU single market.
Sterling shot to multi-month highs after Davis’s comments and, in trade-weighted terms, was headed for its best day since before the June 23 Brexit vote.
But the idea of paying money to Brussels after Brexit was attacked by one prominent Leave campaigner, Arron Banks, who called it “an incredibly foolish concession.”
Davis, who runs a new government department tasked with overseeing Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, was asked repeatedly by lawmakers during a regular question session in parliament about the prospect of having to contribute to the EU budget.
“Withdrawing from the EU means the decisions on how we spend taxpayers’ money will be made in the United Kingdom,” he said.
Asked by an opposition Labour lawmaker if the government would consider making “any contribution in any shape or form” for access to the EU’s single market, Davis said it would.
“The major criterion here is that we get the best possible access for goods and services to the European market, and if that is included in what he’s talking about, then of course we would consider it,” he said.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s government says it wants to negotiate curbs on free movement into Britain from other EU states but also wants the best possible access to the common market once Britain leaves the bloc. European leaders say access to the common market requires accepting free movement and paying into the EU budget.
British opposition parties accuse the government of being vague about its plans, creating uncertainty which hurts the economy. The government says it does not want to reveal details of its negotiating position before it launches the process of leaving, which it plans to do by the end of March.
May’s spokeswoman said Davis’s comments were consistent with what the government had said about Britain deciding how taxpayers’ money will be spent.
Finance minister Philip Hammond said any Brexit deal had to be looked at “in the round” and that Davis was right to keep open the possibility of Britain continuing to pay in to the EU in some way.
Davis also said it was a “very high priority” for Britain to achieve tariff-free access to the EU.
“That may or may not include membership of the single market but it is achievable by a number of different methods,” he said.
Banks, founder of the Leave.EU campaign, criticized Davis for raising the possibility of continuing EU payments and called him “a politician who clearly knows nothing about business or negotiation.”
“Under no pressure to do so ... the new Brexit Secretary reveals his simplicity by conceding on such a fundamental point of contention and throwing away our taxpayers’ money,” he added in a statement.
France and Ireland on Thursday vented their frustration at the British government’s slowness in outlining its Brexit plan, saying that they wanted some clarity in the next few weeks.
In what opposition parties described as another sign of confusion within the government about what terms it will seek, British television stations reported that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had told several EU ambassadors he personally supported freedom of movement.
Davis dismissed the reports, saying they were “completely at odds” with what he believed to be the views of Johnson, one of the leading “leave” campaigners before the June referendum.
Asked about the reports during a visit to Rome, Johnson said he had told EU ambassadors immigration had been a good thing but that it had got out of hand and Britain was leaving the bloc to be able to get back control.
May has said the referendum result was a message from British voters that free movement of people from the EU could not continue as it has done.
Official figures on Thursday showed net migration from the EU to Britain hit a record high of 189,000 in the 12 months running up to the Brexit vote.
Additional reporting by Sarah Young and Stephen Addison in London and Elisabeth O'Leary in Edinburgh; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Peter Graff