May threat to EU terror pact

Theresa May was accused last night of blackmail after she warned that the fight against crime and terrorism would be undermined if the EU refused to strike a Brexit deal with Britain.

The prime minister adopted a conciliatory tone as she triggered Article 50 yesterday. However, she said that the consequences of the talks ending in failure would cause more than economic damage to both sides.

“In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our co-operation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened,” she wrote in her letter to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council.

It drew an angry response from MPs, EU negotiators and diplomats. “Our security is far too important to start bargaining it against an economic agreement,” Guy Verhofstadt, the chief European parliament negotiator, said. “I tried to be a gentleman towards a lady so I didn’t even use or think about the use of the word blackmail.”

The row marred attempts by Mrs May to build bridges as she promised to conduct two years of negotiations in a spirit of “sincere co-operation” — a phrase requested by Germany as a commitment not to seek to divide the remaining 27 EU countries.

The prime minister acknowledged that Britain would pay a price for leaving the single market and offered a “fair settlement” of Britain’s “divorce bill”. She did not repeat a claim made in her Lancaster House speech in January that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.

Nonetheless her appeal for talks on Britain’s EU exit to run in parallel with those on a future relationship were rebuffed by Angela Merkel. The German chancellor restated the EU position that withdrawal talks should come first.

Accused in the Commons of seeking to use security as a “bargaining chip”, Mrs May said: “We will not be trading the security of our country but we have a relationship with the EU. There are certain elements of the EU, in justice and home affairs, of which we are currently members and of which, on leaving the EU, we would not be members.”

Yvette Cooper, the Labour chairwoman of the home affairs select committee, said that the prime minister “should rule out now walking away with no security deal as our national security and public safety depend on it”.

Lord Macpherson of Earl’s Court, a former permanent secretary to the Treasury, tweeted: “Crime & terrorism does not respect borders. Not a credible threat to link co-operation to a trade deal.”

Amber Rudd, the home secretary, said that failure to strike a deal would lead Britain to withdraw information from the databases of Europol, the EU law enforcement agency.

“We are the largest contributor to Europol, so if we left . . . then we would take our information — this is in the legislation — with us,” she said. “European partners want us to keep our information in there, because we keep other European countries safe.”

Downing Street said that Britain would continue to share intelligence with allies regardless of the Brexit talks. EU security arrangements were at stake, however, sources said.

A senior policing source warned that Britain would suffer as much as the EU if it pulled its information from the databases and did not get access to European law enforcement measures.

Key among them are the European arrest warrant, which allows speedy extradition of criminals, and the Prum convention for exchanging DNA, fingerprint and vehicle-owner registrations. The latter provides results within 15 minutes and there is no precedent for access by non-member states.

The source said: “There are 2,000 foreign national offenders walking the streets of Britain every year who are quickly identified and extradited — it’s only fast-tracked because of the European arrest warrant.”

A French source said of Mrs May: “We thought she was putting security at the centre of the relationship and we welcome that.”

Analysis: crime is a shared problem
Theresa May’s explicit link to security might have a threatening undertone but it is also a statement of reality (Fiona Hamilton writes).

Law enforcement chiefs have lobbied the government since the Brexit vote about pan-European measures that they believe are essential to combat crime and terrorism. Without them, they warn, the capability to fight them will be severely damaged.

Mrs May was not referring to security services intelligence — such information sharing with European partners is conducted outside the framework of the EU and will continue, no matter the result of her negotiations.

Instead she was referring to the European databases and measures on which British police have grown to rely.

Crime does not respect borders and real-time data sharing about offenders is invaluable in the fight against people trafficking, modern slavery, drug smuggling and many other offences.

Law enforcement officials have emphasised the devastating impact if Britain does not retain its direct access to fingerprint and DNA databases. Real-time access to criminal records helps to prevent murders, rapes and other offences. The ability to extradite suspects quickly has been considered a “game-changer” and there is no alternative to the European arrest warrant.

The prime minister is absolutely right to say that failure to reach agreement in such areas would mean the weakening of co-operation in the fight against crime and terrorism. The impact, however, would be felt equally by Britain.

the Times

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