According to the Sunday Times, Whitehall officials have been told there is a “high risk” the European Commission would take the UK to court if ministers open talks with any countries with which the EU is already negotiating.
And even talks with countries not already negotiating with the EU contain danger, with experts warning of a “medium/low risk” of legal action from Brussels.
In papers prepared for international trade secretary Liam Fox, the government is warned the EU could punish the UK for talks at the World Trade Organisation, or bilateral negotiations.
A spokeswoman for Fox's ministry declined to comment on the memo when contacted by City A.M., adding: “The role of the Department for International Trade is to explore trading opportunities following Brexit and we will get the best possible deal for the whole of the UK as we forge a new global role for ourselves in the world.
“As we have said, we will fully comply with our responsibilities and exercise our rights as a member of the EU.”
Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for international trade, Europe, energy and climate change, said: “The Prime Minister must realise that if she wants to protect the UK's interest and secure a new relationship with Europe that protects access to the single market and controls immigration then she must stop cavalier ministers like Fox from alienating the very people on whom our future relationship with Europe depends.”