Reports suggest the government is willing to make staged payments of up to €40 billion if the EU agreed to open talks on a post-Brexit trade deal.
With three weeks until the next round of Brexit talks, discussion of the scale of the UK’s liabilities to the EU would open the door to a compromise on one of the key sticking points in negotiations of an October deadline.
The SNP’s Europe spokesman warned the UK government’s continued contradictions and counter-briefing marked “yet another milestone in the Tory shambles over the UK’s plans to leave the EU”.
European sources have previously been quoted putting the size of those commitments much higher, at between €60 and €100 billion.
Ministers have rejected those figures, but conceded in July that the UK must meet its financial “obligations” to the EU.
“We know their position is €60billion, but the actual bottom line is €50billion,” an unnamed senior Whitehall source told the Sunday Telegraph. Ours is closer to €30billion, but the landing zone is €40billion, even if the public and politicians are not all there yet.”
Two other anonymous sources were quoted putting the sum at between €30-40 billion.
The comments strike a very different tone to the one used by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson before the parliamentary recess, in which he told EU leaders they could “go whistle” if they wanted an “exorbitant” payment from the UK. But the figure was dismissed as “highly speculative and wrong” by a Downing Street official.
Stephen Gethins, the SNP’s Europe spokesman, said: “The contradictions and counter-briefings on this issue highlight the utterly shambolic state of this Tory government, and the dangers its damaging approach to negotiations with the EU poses to every part of the UK.
“The status and progress of the UK’s negotiations with the EU rests on the Conservatives agreeing to meet financial obligations and making progress on the final settlement bill. But over a year on, and the Tory government still flounders over one of the key issues.
“The confusion and contradiction on this issue lays bare the total inconsistency and lack of strategy that risks the UK’s economy, job prospects, business security and opportunities for young people.
“Theresa May must put an end to the leaks and briefings and instead set out clearly her strategy before the Tories head into the next round of negotiations – the PM must also guarantee a seat at the table for devolved administrations, which is something there is widespread support for.
“Despite trumpeting the rhetoric of taking back control, this latest episode over one of the key issues show this is a government that has completely lost all control of its obsessive hard Brexit bandwagon.”
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said the contradictory briefings showed the UK’s negotiating position was “an utter shambles”.
“Whatever amount the government proposes, their Brexit supporters won’t understand why it is being paid when their campaign promised otherwise,” Mr Cable said.
“The government has spent months failing to properly engage or set out their plans for these negotiations – it has been an utter shambles.”
EU negotiators insist that talks on a future trade deal with the UK cannot take place until “sufficient progress” has been made on agreeing a Brexit financial settlement, securing the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and finding a solution for the Irish border.
Progress on those priorities will be assessed by EU heads of government at a summit in October.
The £36 billion figure was rejected by prominent Brexiteers on the Conservative backbenches.