Thursday 30 March 2017 07
Anushka Asthana, Daniel Boffey, Heather Stewart and Peter Walker
Prime minister’s remarks in article 50 letter prompt reply that other member states will not accept security collaboration as bargaining chip
Theresa May wrote in the article 50 letter: ‘Failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened.’ Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Theresa May warned European leaders that failure to reach a comprehensive Brexit agreement will result in a weakening of cooperation on crime and security, triggering accusations that her remarks amounted to blackmail.
Senior figures in Brussels complained about the prime minister’s remarks, while critics in Westminster also piled in, arguing that the prime minister had issued a “blatant threat” and was treating security as a “bargaining chip” in negotiations.
The long-anticipated article 50 letter, hand-delivered by Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s EU ambassador, to the European council president, Donald Tusk, stressed that the British government’s prime desire was to maintain a “deep and special partnership” with the EU27.
But the Conservative leader also suggested that a final divorce agreement would need to take in both economic and security cooperation and issued a clear warning about the potential fallout if the talks failed.
“If, however, we leave the European Union without an agreement, the default position is that we would have to trade on World Trade Organisation terms. In security terms, a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened,” she wrote.
The European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, responded that MEPs would not accept any attempt by the UK to use its strength in the military and intelligence fields as a bargaining chip, underlining the complexities that the prime minister will face in achieving a smooth exit from the EU.
“I tried to be a gentleman towards a lady, so I didn’t even use or think about the use of the word blackmail,” Verhofstadt said. “I think the security of our citizens is far too important to start a trade-off of one and the other. Both are absolutely necessary in the future partnership without bargaining this one against the other.”
Gianni Pittella, the leader of the Socialist bloc in the European parliament, said: “It would be outrageous to play with people’s lives in these negotiations. This has not been a good start by Theresa May. It feels like blackmail, but security is a good for all our citizens and not a bargaining chip. We still hope that Theresa May can get back on the right track … This was not a smart move.”
The government will follow the triggering of article 50 by publishing a white paper on Thursday that will lay the foundations for a “great repeal bill” designed to bring the body of EU legislation back into the British system. Sources said the aim was to ensure that the same rules and laws applied the day after the UK left the EU.
The prime minister’s stark language in the letter contrasted with her conciliatory tone when she told MPs that the article 50 divorce letter had been delivered. May told MPs that her government would strive to ensure that Britain remained a best friend and close ally to the rest of the EU.
There was also a frank admission about the negative impact of Brexit in the UK. “We understand that there will be consequences for the UK of leaving the EU. We know that we will lose influence over the rules that affect the European economy. We know that UK companies that trade with the EU will have to align with rules agreed by institutions of which we are no longer a part, just as we do in other overseas markets. We accept that,” she said.
The prime minister said she understood that Wednesday was “a day of celebration for some and disappointment for others” – a point underlined as passionate campaigners on either side of the debate rose after her statement to put forward their arguments.
She was clear that, in her eyes, there was now no way to stop Brexit, adding that her government was acting on the “democratic will of the British people”. She added: “This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back. Britain is leaving the European Union. We are going to make our own decisions and our own laws. We are going to take control of the things that matter most to us.”
In the letter, the prime minister admitted that Britain faced a “momentous” task in fully extricating itself from the EU by the spring of 2019, but claimed it was feasible. However, her request to negotiate a comprehensive trade agreement alongside withdrawal discussions was soon knocked back by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. “The negotiations must first clarify how we will disentangle our interlinked relationship” before talks about the future relationship could begin, Merkel said in Berlin.
The European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, was more clearcut when he said the UK’s decision to quit the block was a “choice they will regret one day”.
Other leading European figures struck a more emollient note. A sombre Tusk, speaking shortly after receiving article 50, said: “We already miss you. Thank you and goodbye.”
Amber Rudd, the home secretary, insisted that “no threat” was being issued by the UK and that trade and security talks were separate, but added that security cooperation was a reality of EU membership and would need to be negotiated after Brexit.
“If you look at something like Europol, we are the largest contributor to Europol. So if we left Europol, then we would take our information – this is in the legislation – with us. The fact is, the European partners want us to keep our information there, because we keep other European countries safe as well,” Rudd said.
In response to the claims of blackmail, and to Merkel’s comments about the timing of talks, a government source said that this was the “start of a negotiation” so it was no surprise that people were taking tough positions.
Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader, said the hint that security issues could be wrapped together with trade talks read like a “blatant threat” to withdraw cooperation if the EU failed to offer a good enough trade deal.
Yvette Cooper, the Labour chair of parliament’s home affairs select committee, said it would be “dangerous” for Britain to leave the EU without a security agreement in place. “She should not be trying to use this as a bargaining chip in the negotiations. This is not a threat to the rest of Europe – it would be a serious act of self-harm.”
Lord Kirkhope, a Conservative peer who used to be the party’s spokesman on justice and home affairs in Brussels, argued that the exchange of intelligence and security information within the EU was “critical”. “We cannot allow there to be any gaps or delays. You cannot have security as a bargaining chip,” he said, reasoning that the government ought to prioritise the issue at the start of the talks. If not, it could end up as a “casualty at the end”, he said. “The problem with security is you can’t afford that.”
A government source said the government was only going to be negotiating over security issues linked to the EU, including Europol, extradition agreements, and an EU-wide information alert system for wanted and suspected criminals. Talks would not include anything linked to Britain’s Nato membership, or longstanding relationships between intelligence services, it was emphasised.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, responded by promising that the government would be “held to account at every stage of the negotiations”. He told MPs: “The British people made a decision to leave the European Union, and Labour respects that decision. The next steps along this journey are the most crucial, and if the prime minister is to unite the country … The government needs to listen, consult and represent the whole country, not just hardline Tory ideologues on her own benches.” He promised to oppose any threats to turn Britain into a “low-wage tax haven”.
Dominic Grieve MP, a leading supporter of Open Britain and the chair of the intelligence and security committee, said the row over security underlined the need for May to secure a deal. “The prime minister’s letter shows leaving the EU with no deal would not just hurt our economy, but also our security, which relies on close cooperation with Europe.” – The Guardian