EU fights back after May threat to pull terror aid over Brexit deal
Theresa May's Brexit launch suffered a series of heavy blows yesterday after key planks of her opening strategy were point-blank rejected by Europe's top politicians within hours of her historic move to trigger Article 50.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel publically dismissed her plan to instantly begin talks on a lucrative trade deal, saying negotiations on Britain's EU divorce - including a bill potentially hitting €60bn - must come first. European Parliament negotiator Guy Verhofstadt then brushed off what was described by others as Ms May's "blatant threat" to withdraw British terror and crime-fighting co-operation, in order to extract a good trade deal.
Back in London, the British prime minister was accused of souring the fledgling Brexit talks with her attempt to tie pan-European security collaboration to any deal.
The fallout followed the delivery of Ms May's historic letter to president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, officially notifying him of the UK's intention to trigger Article 50 and quit the bloc. Ms May was speaking in Parliament as Britain's Ambassador to the EU Sir Tim Barrow personally passed the letter to Mr Tusk in Brussels at 12.20pm.
After receiving the letter in front of a display of Union Jack and EU flags, Mr Tusk spoke of his sorrow at Europe's rupture, telling Britain: "We already miss you".
But the grief quickly gave way to the harsh realities of the European negotiating table, as Ms Merkel poured cold water on one of her British counterpart's key demands. Speaking to reporters in Berlin, the German leader said negotiations on British divorce terms would take place first and that only then could the much-desired UK-EU trade talks take place.
She said: "The negotiations must first clarify how we will disentangle our interlinked relationship... and only when this question is dealt with, can we, hopefully soon after, begin talking about our future relationship."
In her letter to Mr Tusk, the prime minister underlined several times how the UK believes "it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the European Union". Concurrent negotiations would make it easier for Ms May to secure trade terms before the UK drops out of the EU at midnight on March 29, 2019.
But the force of the EU's negotiating position, often denied by Brexiteers, became clear as the European Parliament followed Ms Merkel in refusing to countenance trade talks until Ms May settles divorce terms. That means Britain may be pushed into agreeing to settle its financial "obligations" to Brussels, which may reach €60bn by some estimates, before it can begin to talk about a trade deal that will help secure the country's economic future.
Ms May had softened some of the language in her Article 50 letter and statement to the Commons, following her January Lancaster House speech which saw her warn she would leave the EU with "no deal" if she did not get what she wanted.
But her apparent attempts to be more amenable were overshadowed by her perceived threat to withdraw security co-operation from Europe. Her Article 50 letter to Brussels repeatedly tied security links to any future agreement and warned that the "fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened" if one cannot be struck.
Downing Street officials later said the prime minister was merely making "a simple statement of fact" that if no deal is reached, it would mean existing arrangements on security co-operation would lapse.