Theresa May has been accused of making a “blatant threat” to end British crime and security co-operation with the EU if she fails to get a free-trade deal after Brexit.
The Prime Minister sparked a backlash after she explicitly linked a new deal on trade with continued co-operation on crime and terrorism.
Critics claimed that May was putting both Britons’ and Europeans security on the line in her drive to get a “hard Brexit”.
And as Labour and the Liberal Democrats, as well as a former civil service chief, rounded on her, the PM’s spokesman was forced to deny that she was unleashing a new “Project Fear” to get her way.
The hardball tactics came as May formally started the two-year Brexit talks process with a formal letter to EU council chief Donald Tusk in Brussels.
In her letter, she warned that it would be a “costly mistake” to punish the UK by failing to agree a deal on trade and other issues.
“Europe’s security is more fragile today than at any time since the end of the Cold War,” she wrote.
“Weakening our cooperation for the prosperity and protection of our citizens would be a costly mistake.”
The letter, delivered at 12.20pm on Wednesday, repeated an earlier threat that if the UK was forced to quit the EU without a trade deal, it would have to put up goods tariffs under World Trade Organisation terms.
But in what was seen as an extraordinary new threat, she then warned: “In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened.
“In this kind of scenario, both the United Kingdom and the European Union would of course cope with the change, but it is not the outcome that either side should seek.”
Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who was sent on the TV airwaves to calm the row down, initially said that the two issues of trade and security were not being linked. “It is the same paragraph. But it is not in the same sentence,” she said.
But she fuelled the controversy further by pointing out that the EU would be less safe if the UK was forced to quit the pan-European crime agency Europol without a deal.
“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,” she told Sky News.
In a blog for HuffPost UK, Yvette Cooper, the Labour chair of the Home Affairs Committee, said that May’s threat “beggars belief”.
“This is irresponsible and dangerous and it is a terrible way to start the negotiations,” she wrote.
“Whatever the deal ends up being on trade or immigration, everyone agrees that security cooperation must continue. It must not be a bargaining chip or held hostage in wider talks.”
Lib Dem leader Tim Farron branded the letter - which triggered the so-called Article 50 process for quitting the EU - a “blatant threat” to European negotiators.
“It is shameful that Theresa May has threatened to withdraw security co-operation from our closest neighbours and allies.
“With growing terrorist threats from around the world, it is imperative that we work together with European allies for our mutual security.
“She is prepared to put the safety of British and European citizens on the line just so she can deliver her hard Brexit.”
Several critics felt that the threat was an empty one that undermined the UK’s attempt to win goodwill on the first day of the two-year process, that will end with Britain leaving the EU at midnight on March 29, 2019.
Lord Macpherson, the Treasury’s most senior civil servant until last year, was withering.
“Crime & terrorism does not respect borders. Not a credible threat to link cooperation to a trade deal,” he tweeted.
Labour MP Stephen Kinnock claimed in the Commons that May seemed to be “saying the security of our country will be traded like a bargaining chip in these negotiations”.
The PM replied: “We’re not going to be trading the security of our country…It’s very simple, it’s very pragmatic.”
When challenged by Labour’s Catherine McKinnell on her letter’s linking of security and trade, May added: “I make clear in the letter that not having arrangements, not having agreements, on these issues would not be in the interest of the UK and the European Union. And we should work to ensure that we secure a deal”.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman was asked if security was now a new bargaining chip for Britain.
He replied: “It is a simple fact. It is a fact that our EU security arrangements, based on EU rules and EU institutions, would obviously lapse if we left the EU without a deal.”
“The Prime Minister was also clear it is not something that either side should be seeking. She’s also clear we will seek with huge goodwill a comprehensive deal.”
He denied that May was embarking on a new ‘Project Fear’ – the title given by Brexiteers to attempts by Remain campaigners to persuade the public of the economic and security dangers of pulling out of the EU.
Here are the exchanges between reporters and No.10.