French President Francois Hollande has told Theresa May that talks on future trade relations with the EU must come after the negotiation of a divorce deal.
Mr Hollande’s stance echoed that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as Europe presented a united front against the Prime Minister’s plea for trade and divorce talks to take place simultaneously.
Failure to achieve a swift move to trade talks would threaten Mrs May’s goal of completing the negotiations by the expected date of Brexit in March 2019, and could force her to seek a transitional deal lasting several years to prevent a disruptive “cliff-edge” change in trading rules.
In a statement, the Elysee Palace said Mr Hollande spoke by phone with the Prime Minister and told her it was “necessary first to initiate discussions on the arrangements for withdrawal, notably relating to citizens’ rights and the obligations arising from commitments made by the United Kingdom.
“On the basis of progress being achieved on that, we would be able to open discussions on the issue of the future relations between the UK and the EU.”
A statement released on Wednesday by the European Council on behalf of the 27 remaining member states said Brexit talks would “start by focusing on all key arrangements for an orderly withdrawal” and did not mention a trade deal.
Brexit Secretary David Davis played down the significance of the row over the sequencing of talks.
The Article 50 provision governing withdrawal states that the negotiations must “take into account” the future relationship along with the withdrawal arrangements, he said.
“The Commission has taken a different stance and said ‘We want to deal with the departure first and the ongoing relationship second’,” Mr Davis told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “There is an area of argument over this, an area of discussion over this, which is fine.”
And he added: “We are after a fully-comprehensive deal that covers trade, that covers security, covers all the aspects of our existing relationship and tries to preserve as much of it – the benefits for everybody – as we can.”
Mr Davis rejected claims that Mrs May was trying to “blackmail” Brussels by linking trade and security in her letter notifying the EU of Britain’s intention to quit.
Critics accused the PM of issuing a veiled threat with her warning that “a failure to reach agreement would mean our co-operation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened”.
The European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, told ITV1’s Good Morning Britain: “What I think is not possible is to say to the European Union ‘Well, look, we will only co-operate on security if you give us a good trade deal or a good economic package’. That is not done.
“The security of the citizens is so important, the fight against terrorism is so crucial, that you cannot negotiate with something else.”