David Davis, Brexit secretary, has denied suggestions that Theresa May is threatening EU countries that Britain will withdraw security cooperation if it does not get a trade deal.
Mr Davis said Mrs May was simply highlighting the risks to Britain and Europe if existing EU cooperation on security and policing issues ended in 2019 in the absence of a “comprehensive” deal.
“It’s not in any sense a threat,” Mr Davis told the BBC’s Today Programme. “It would be harmful for both of us if we don’t have a deal. It’s an argument for having a deal.”
Mr Davis also admitted there was an “area of argument” between Britain and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, over his insistence that a divorce deal – including a financial settlement – must be agreed before trade talks begin.
Angela Merkel has also strongly endorsed Mr Barnier’s position but Mr Davis believes that the divorce and the “future relationship” can and will be discussed in tandem because the EU treaty requires it.
“Part of my job is to keep things on an even keel,” he said.
Meanwhile the Brexit secretary rowed back on his earlier claim that Britain would leave the EU enjoying “exactly the same benefits” as before, saying that it was actually an “aim”.
He said: “I’m going to be aiming as high as conceivably possible. Achieving it is a matter for negotiation.”
Mr Davis’s insistence that Britain is seeking “a really good deal” and the conciliatory nature of Mrs May’s statement on Wednesday is in line with a more positive mood in the EU about the possibility that an agreement can be reached.
Mrs May’s Article 50 letter and her three hour House of Commons appearance left room for compromise in areas such as the role of European judges, a financial settlement and free movement.
Mr Davis said he was sure that Eurosceptic Tory MPs would back a final deal, even if it meant concessions. “If we we can come up with a good deal, they will support it,” he said.
Meanwhile the Brexit secretary confirmed that he expected the Great Repeal Bill to simply cut and paste EU law on to the British statute book, so that a trade deal could be struck more easily.
“The white paper takes on board all the EU law so that on the day we leave we are in exactly the same position,” he said.
He said parliament could decide to re-regulate in certain areas at a later date, but Mrs May acknowledged on Wednesday that any trade deal with the EU would require a mechanism to ensure “a level playing field” and to stop wholesale regulatory divergence.