Theresa May was accused last night of trying to blackmail the EU over a Brexit trade deal.
In a show of steel that angered Brussels, the Prime Minister suggested she could withdraw co-operation on security unless a fair agreement was struck.
She used her Article 50 letter, which launches a two-year divorce process, to warn the EU against trying to damage Britain at such a dangerous time. The 28-state bloc leans heavily on UK intelligence and policing expertise.
Mrs May’s warning was described as tantamount to blackmail by Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator.
EU leaders quickly said they would block Mrs May’s demand for a trade deal to be negotiated alongside the terms of Britain’s departure.
‘The negotiations must first clarify how we will disentangle our interlinked relationship,’ said German chancellor Angela Merkel.
‘Only when this question is dealt with can we, hopefully soon after, begin talking about our future relationship.’
French president Francois Hollande said Brexit ‘would be painful for the British’.
Jeremy Corbyn warned Labour would vote The PM floated the idea of transitional period to phase in immigration and customs changes.
She said the UK would stop making large payments to Brussels but told the BBC: ‘We’re a law-abiding nation, we will meet obligations that we have.’
Some ministers have warned the PM that Tory MPs would not accept a bill of more than £3billion. EU leaders have suggested a figure closer to £50billion.
In a Commons performance lasting more than three hours and 20 minutes, the Prime Minister fielded questions from MPs and set out her vision for Brexit.
Free movement will not end for at least two years – raising fears of a rush to Britain by EU citizens desperate to beat the deadline.
Theresa May risked anger by stepping away from imposing migration curbs from the moment she triggered Article 50.
It means controversial free movement rules are unlikely to be axed before 2019.
The Government will then bring forward a Bill setting out proposed legislation to tackle immigration.
Mrs May has previously suggested a ‘targeted’ visa regime for EU migrants so they will have to secure a skilled job before being allowed to work in the UK.
Asked on the BBC last night about when free movement could end, Mrs May said: ‘We want to have the agreements done in two years.
‘There may then be a period when we are implementing those arrangements.
‘What we will be able to do, as a result of leaving the EU, is to have control of our borders, is to set those rules for people coming from inside the European Union into the UK.’
She pledged to forge a ‘stronger, fairer, more united’ country, take back control of the UK’s borders and strike an early agreement to guarantee the rights of 3.2million EU citizens living in this country and 1.2million British citizens in Europe. ‘I choose to believe in Britain and that our best days are ahead,’ she said.
The Prime Minister acknowledged there would be consequences for the UK in leaving the EU, with exporters forced to abide by rules that Britain no longer had a say in deciding. Downing Street denied that Mrs May’s decision to explicitly raise the security issues was a threat, saying it was a ‘statement of fact’ that EU membership is the basis for substantial co-operation on security.
Mrs May’s tough stance on security could see the UK withdraw co-operation on issues such as the sharing of DNA, vehicle registration and fingerprints, as well as the UK’s involvement in the cross-border Europol agency and the European Arrest Warrant.
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron described Mrs May’s warning as a ‘blatant threat’, adding: ‘Security cooperation has been lumped together with trade – it’s utterly scandalous.’
Mr Verhofstadt said: ‘Our security is far too important to start bargaining it against an economic agreement. I tried to be a gentleman towards a lady [Mrs May] so I didn’t even use or think about the use of the word blackmail.’
Mrs May defended her decision to switch from supporting Remain in the referendum to now championing Brexit, saying: ‘Well, I did campaign for Remain and I did vote to remain.
‘But I also said that I didn’t think the sky would fall in if we left the European Union, and it hasn’t.’
Former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine described it as a ‘very sad day’ and predicted pro-Remain forces could yet block Brexit if Mrs May failed to secure a good deal.