30 Mar 2017

Is security a bargaining chip for May?

“In security terms a failure to reach an agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened,” wrote Theresa May in the historical letter that Sir Tim Barrow, the United Kingdom’s permanent representative to the European Union, delivered to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council. This line has provoked reactions, some of them rather angry, from EU officials, who think that it is a covert blackmail.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament chief Brexit negotiator, was one of the first to react. “What we shall never accept is that there is a trade-off between the one and the other. I tried to be a gentleman towards a lady so I didn’t even use or think about the use of the word blackmail. I think that the security of our citizens is far too important to start a trade-off. Both are absolutely necessary in the future partnership without bargaining this one against the other,” Verhofstadt told a news conference. The Belgian politician has spoken repeatedly in favour of a good deal between the UK and the EU, that will protect the affected citizens’ human rights.

Joseph Muskat, the prime minister of Malta which holds the presidency of the EU until June 2017, expressed his worries about May’s statement concerning security issues. “We are part of the same family, we should be committed to fighting terrorism and beefing up our security irrespective of what happens at the end of the day,” Muscat said showing his concern about the link made between the trade agreement and the security cooperation in May’s letter.

The leader of the Socialists in the EP, Gianni Pittella, said that Theresa May didn’t make a smart move. “It would be outrageous to play with people’s lives in these negotiations. This has not been a good start by Theresa May. It feels like blackmail, but security is a good for all our citizens and not a bargaining chip. We still hope that Theresa May can get back on their right track.”

May’s statement about security raised criticism also in the UK. Yvette Cooper, a Labour MP, warned the UK government that it would be dangerous not to achieve a deal on security by the end of the negotiations. “She should not be trying to use this as a bargaining chip. This is not a threat to the rest of Europe, it would be a serious act of self-harm,” Cooper said. Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, described it as a “blatant threat” made by the British prime minister against the EU.

Stephen Kinnock, a Labour MP, asked the prime minister in the House of Commons if she means that the UK’s security will be used as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with the EU. Theresa May replied that “it’s very simple, it’s very pragmatic. It’s a matter of raising issues at stake in a reasoned negotiation. We aren’t going to be trading the security of our country.”

It seems though that May’s efforts to reassure didn’t calm down her critics. A prime minister’s spokesman stressed that Theresa May was solely referring to security arrangements agreed via the EU, such as the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) and the crime fighting agency Europol. He also mentioned that private agreements for sharing intelligence with other European nations are not up for debate.

Whether it is a covert blackmail or a bad choice of words, Theresa May started the Brexit procedure on the wrong foot. Juncker and Verhofstadt are the EU politicians that are campaigning in favour of a good Brexit deal. May’s words are going to empower those EU leaders who want the United Kingdom to be punished severely and presented as an example to everyone that has similar thoughts of exiting the EU