Britain sought to downplay a row over future security ties with the EU on Thursday, as London and Brussels drew up the first battle lines at the start of their two-year divorce.
“It’s not a threat,” Brexit minister David Davis told BBC radio after Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday warned failure to clinch an deal on trade ties would weaken the fight against terrorism.
But Davis said the “simple truth” was that without a “parallel deal” with Brussels, Britain would no longer be part of the Europol crime-fighting agency or the European Arrest Warrant or share security data.
Interior minister Amber Rudd also said that security cooperation was part of EU membership and would have to be negotiated.
“We are the largest contributor to Europol. So if we left Europol, then we would take our information … with us,” she said.
May’s warning was seen as a veiled threat in Brussels with the European Parliament’s chief negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt retorting that “citizens’ security was far too serious a subject” to be held hostage to the negotiations.
French ambassador to Britain Sylvie Bermann on Thursday also told the BBC: “It can’t be a trade-off between an FTA, a free trade agreement, and security”.
“I don’t understand that because it wouldn’t be in the interest of the UK because we’re all facing the same security challenges,” she said.
British newspapers were in no doubt about the significance of May’s words as she began Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, nine months on from a referendum vote in favour of Brexit.
“Your Money or Your Lives,” read a front page headline in the best-selling tabloid The Sun, while The Times said: “May threat to EU terror pact”.
The row came as some of the EU’s top leaders gathered to flesh out their strategy for the hard talks ahead as the bloc reels from the blow of one of its biggest members becoming the first ever state to start withdrawal from the 60-year-old union.
European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker, who will meet in Malta later on Thursday with EU President Donald Tusk, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, urged the remaining 27 EU nations to pull together.
But the path ahead is strewn with obstacles, with the fate of three million EU citizens living in Britain and one million British people within the bloc’s nations top of leaders’ agenda.
Also looming large over negotiations is the so-called “exit bill” Britain will have to pay, estimated to be as much as 60 billion euros ($64 billion, £52 billion).
But before these talks can even get under way, MPs will begin the daunting task of amending or scrapping EU regulation as it is brought into British law.
May told parliament on Wednesday that this was important “so that on the day we leave everybody knows those rules still apply and everybody knows where they stand”.
Analysts said the tone of Wednesday’s historic announcement and the EU’s initial reaction was largely conciliatory except for the warning on security.