LONDON (Reuters) - Britain is likely to leave the European Union police agency Europol after Brexit and could "take our information" away if no future security deal is struck with the bloc, interior minister Amber Rudd said on Wednesday.
Hours after Prime Minister Theresa May formally kicked off Britain's divorce from the EU beginning two years of negotiations with the bloc, Rudd warned a failure to reach an agreement over security would weaken cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism.
However, she said a deal was in both sides' interest and security was not an issue that was going "to be traded".
Rudd did admit that it was likely that Britain would no longer be a member of Europol but said it was Britain's intent to strike agreements which would provide the same security benefits both sides currently enjoyed.
"What we need to do is have a relationship with Europol that allows us equal access," she told Sky News. "We need to have an agreement with Europol to make sure that we continue to contribute and we continue to take out."
Britain is one of the top three users of Europol data while European nations also benefit from the information the UK brings from its long-standing "Five Eyes" intelligence sharing pact with the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
"We are the largest contributor to Europol, so if we left Europol ... then we would take our information - this is in the legislation - with us," Rudd said.
"The fact is the European partners want us to keep our information in there, because we keep other European countries safe as well. This isn't a huge contentious issue."
UK security officials and police chiefs have previously warned of the dangers of leaving Europol and the agreement covering the European Arrest Warrant, which requires all EU governments to arrest a suspect wanted in another EU country.
"In bluntest form, we must be able to continue to exchange intelligence and we must be able to understand the movement of criminals and criminal behaviour across international borders," Lynne Owens, Director General of Britain's National Crime Agency said last September.
Claude Moraes, a Briton who chairs the European Parliament's Liberty, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, said it was important that the issue of security cooperation was taken more seriously than it had been.
"The problem is that security lies very awkwardly in the negotiations. It's not an easy bargaining chip," he told Reuters.
(Reporting by Michael Holden and Alistair Smout in London and Alissa de Carbonnel in Brussels; editing by Stephen Addison)