Downing Street has insisted EU leaders "appreciated" Theresa May's letter formally starting the Brexit process, despite the prime minister emphasising the UK's willingness to withdraw cooperation on security matters unless a new trade deal is agreed in the next two years.
The prime minister triggered Article 50 on Wednesday, informing the European Council of Britain's intention to leave the EU in a six-page letter that was handed to the council's president, Donald Tusk.
In the letter she emphasised that failure to agree a comprehensive new post-Brexit trade deal could mean "our co-operation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened".
This prompted criticism from opposition politicians such as Labour's Yvette Cooper, who warned that such an act would be "a serious act of self-harm", while the pro-Brexit Sun newspaper ran with the headline "Your Money Or Your Lives".
But Downing Street insisted the tone of the letter, which was covered negatively in some European newspapers, was fair and simply reflected a longstanding position on security matters.
"The feedback we have received is that the tone of the prime minister’s letter was appreciated," said May's official spokesperson.
"The prime minister was simply setting out the facts. It is a fact that if we don’t negotiate a deal then [the security arrangements] will lapse. This has been the clear position of the government since January. It’s in everyone’s interests to strike this deal."
Brexit secretary David Davis had earlier insisted the lines about security in the letter were "not in any sense a threat”.
May also wrote articles for a number of European newspapers in key EU countries, in which she explicitly linked security to the trade negotiations. The open letter, which was translated into Polish, Swedish, Spanish, Italian, and German, also emphasised the security risk of the UK withdrawing cooperation if it does not achieve a suitable trade deal.
The English version was published in the Irish Times, with the prime minister using a third of the letter to discuss the security risks of the UK departing without a new deal.
"I want the UK’s new relationship with the EU to ensure that – whether it comes to exchanging the information our security services need, or working together to protect Europe’s borders – we have the closest possible relationship," she wrote.
Other diplomatic missions around the world also did their best to explain Brexit to local audiences, with Sir Kim Darroch, the UK ambassador to the United States, holding a conference call for reporters.
As part of an attempt to sell the idea of a favourable deal for the UK, May held calls with heads of government from across the EU, including French president François Hollande. But Hollande, who steps down as president in May, insisted he would not give in to May's desire to start talks on a new trade deal before the UK's terms of exit are complete.
"First we must begin discussions on the modalities of the withdrawal, especially on the rights of citizens and the obligations arising from the commitments that the United Kingdom has made," Hollande's spokesperson said in a statement.
Meanwhile Downing Street confirmed May actually sent two identical signed Article 50 letters to the EU. One was kept by Tusk, while the other was stamped by EU officials and returned to Downing Street, where it will be kept as a memento.
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at email@example.com.
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