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‘There’s no blackmail. There is no blackmail’: French minister defends treatment of UK

  • Le Maire's comments came shortly after a statement made by the U.K.'s Trade Secretary Liam Fox. He said the U.K. could not be blackmailed into paying a bill before there's an agreement on their future relationship
  • "The question isn't to have a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit, the question is how do we do that Brexit without jeopardizing the whole (of) Europe"

France's economy minister has dismissed suggestions that the U.K. is being "blackmailed" into agreeing a fee for its split from the EU before formal trade talks can begin.

"There's no blackmail. There is no blackmail," Bruno Le Maire told CNBC on the sidelines of the Ambrosetti Forum in Italy over the weekend. "You cannot rewrite the past and what's been decided has been decided. There will be no blackmail but there will be decision," Le Maire said, suggesting that there's no turning back on the U.K.'s decision to leave the EU.

Le Maire's comments came shortly after a statement made by the U.K.'s Trade Secretary Liam Fox. During a trip to Japan last week, Fox said the U.K. could not be blackmailed into paying a bill before there's an agreement on their future relationship - something that the EU opposes completely and which the U.K. had previously agreed upon.

"We can't be blackmailed into paying a price on the first part," he said. "We think we should begin discussions on the final settlement because that's good for business, and it's good for the prosperity both of the British people and of the rest of the people of the European Union."

Brexit discussions cranked up a notch at the Ambrosetti Forum in Lake Como over the weekend. The EU's Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said that the British people hadn't been properly told about the consequences of leaving the single market – an area where goods, services and people move freely. As such, Barnier said that Brexit would be "an educational process" for the British.

The relationship between the U.K. and Europe has become tense after the third round of negotiations, which ended last Thursday. The European Union warned that there hadn't been enough progress to comply with the timeline originally agreed. The official timeline indicates that London and Brussels can discuss trade links and their future relationship in October, but that seems now very unlikely.

Hard or soft Brexit?

Some core members of the British government have defended a "hard Brexit" –meaning a breakup from Europe in as many ways as possible, including from the single market. Others, like Finance Minister Philip Hammond seem to favor keeping a few links with Europe. However, according to Le Maire, the answer should instead be a "fair Brexit."

"The question isn't to have a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit, the question is how do we do that Brexit without jeopardizing the whole (of) Europe, without weakening the British people. We need a fair Brexit. Not a hard Brexit, not a soft Brexit, but we need a fair Brexit that will be in the interests of the British people and of the European people," the French minister said.

The question of how to achieve that is unclear, however. One of the most contentious issues – the bill that the U.K. needs to pay before leaving the EU - is a good example of that.

Money is what 'frightens' the EU

While the EU keeps pressuring the U.K. to come up with a methodology to measure how much it owes the Union, London remains skeptical about paying vast sums. David Davis, the U.K.'s Brexit negotiator denied on Sunday that the U.K. was preparing to pay a divorce bill of about 50 billion euros ($59.44 billion).

"They (the EU) have set this up because they are trying to play time against money," Davis told the BBC on Sunday.

"Every time we come to something serious there will be a pressure exercise of this sort. Money is incredibly important, it is the thing that frightens them most," Davis said, reiterating that the U.K. hadn't yet made its position on the financial settlement.

When talking to CNBC in Italy, Le Maire said he could not give a figure but added that "there will be a bill, of course."

The so-called Brexit bill is aimed at paying the U.K.'s liabilities to the European Union, including projects that had already received a greenlight as well as pensions to U.K. workers in European institutions.