UK facing accusations of blackmail over its formal Brexit letter
The road to divorce is rarely smooth. But Britain’s split with the EU has gotten off to a particularly rocky start, with the country’s formal letter of departure being interpreted by some in Europe as containing an implicit threat of blackmail.
Prime Minister Theresa May set Brexit in motion yesterday with a letter officially notifying the EU that her country was leaving, starting the clock on a two-year window for exit negotiations. In the letter, the British leader warned that if Brexit talks failed to reach a comprehensive agreement on Britain’s departure, it would have an impact for cooperation over security and crime.
“In security terms, a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened,” she wrote.
That sentence went over badly in Europe, where some read it as an implied threat. Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, said he would not accept any attempt to bargain on trade issues using Britain’s military and intelligence strength as leverage.
“I try to be a gentleman towards a lady, so I didn’t even use or think about the use of the word blackmail,” he 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, leader of the socialists and democrats group in the European parliament, was more direct: “It feels like blackmail, but security is good for all our citizens and not a bargaining chip,” he said. “It would be outrageous to play with people’s lives in these negotiations. This has not been a good start by Theresa May.”
France’s Le Monde newspaper was equally blunt, calling May’s tactic “barefaced blackmail: if you don’t open your single market to our products, the UK will cease police, intelligence and anti-terror cooperation.” The statement got a similar interpretation on the other side of the English Channel, where British tabloid The Sun ran with the headline: “Your money or your lives: Trade with us and we’ll help fight terror.”
Amid the backlash, Britain’s Brexit Minister David Davis stressed Thursday that the letter did not contain a threat to withdraw security cooperation.
“What the prime minister was saying was that if we have no deal, and we want a deal, it’s bad for both of us,” he told the BBC Radio 4. “If we don’t have a deal, what we are going to lose is the current arrangement on justice and home affairs.”
Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King’s College London, told VICE News that the inclusion of the sentence was unfortunate.
“I wouldn’t have put that paragraph in,” he said. “This unfortunately smacked a little bit of ‘We will leave you in the lurch if you’re not nice with us.’”
But he said he saw nothing wrong with Britain using its strengths in military and intelligence in negotiations with the EU.
“Across Europe, people acknowledge our intelligence services are the best, our armed forces are one of the best – that we are a net contributor to European security and other members states use our intelligence insights,” he said.
“We will use whatever negotiating chips we can get our hands on.”
Another of May’s key requests for Brexit discussions – to negotiate a trade agreement with the EU contemporaneously with withdrawal talks – was rebuffed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel Wednesday. In comments in Berlin, she said that negotiations on the exit – including the matter of Britain’s “divorce bill,” which some have estimated could reach 60 billion euros ($64 billion) – must come before any talks on the future of the relationship.
European officials have warned that resolving complex trade issues will take longer than the two-year Brexit timeframe. While many European leaders have said they do not want to punish Britain for leaving, they may also not be inclined to let the country go easily for fear of encouraging further defections from the troubled bloc, which has been weathering the strain of successive migration and debt crises.
Cover: ASSOCIATED PRESS