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The old British tactic of divide and rule in Europe will not work for Brexit negotiations

The other 27 governments in the EU may struggle to maintain a common line once the phoney war ends.

As usual, Yes Minister put it best. For 500 years Britain had pursued a single policy towards its Continental neighbours, Sir Humphrey noted to his baffled minister in an episode from 1980. The aim? “To create a disunited Europe.” Britain’s fondness for playing off one European government against another kept it out of the antecedents to the European Union for years; Konrad Adenauer and, in particular, Charles de Gaulle did not want to give Britain a chance to play “the old game”.

Once inside the club, Britain proved the old statesmen correct. In 2004, for instance, Tony Blair saw off the candidacy of Guy Verhofstadt, a floppy-haired federalist who is now the European Parliament’s Brexit pointman, for the post of president of the European Commission, marshalling resistance against a usually irresistible Franco-German consensus. Contrary to claims by the more rabid Brexiteers, Britain rather often got its way in Brussels.

Britain’s star has since faded in Brussels, and was wholly eclipsed by Brexit. But as Britain gets ready to do battle over the terms of its divorce from the EU, one sometimes encounters among its diplomats mutations of the old argument: that the government can secure a better settlement by boxing clever and cultivating special deals with other countries. It can buy off Poland with a promise to keep funding motorways, or Estonia with a pledge to contribute more to Nato missions. It can set countries that need a good post-Brexit trade deal against those that care more about national security. And it can seek to exploit distractions such as Greece, which may be heading for economic crisis again, or European panic over the chaos in Washington.

They have half a point. If the 27 other EU governments have held fast on Brexit since the referendum – surprisingly so – theirs is a thin sort of unity, grounded solely in defensive principles that tell Britain what it cannot do: no negotiations before notification and no cherry-picking from the single market. It is not hard to discern the hairline cracks. The institutions in Brussels are eyeing each other as warily as ever. Some governments, including the Germans, are keen to keep the European Commission, which will lead the talks with Britain, on a short leash. The governments themselves may struggle to maintain a common line once the phoney war ends; the EC’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, has warned the 27 to be alert to British divide-and-rule tactics.

This is a risky road for Britain to travel. First, on one of the first orders of Brexit business, the bill for departure, the government will encounter an unheard-of ­alignment of interests between payers and contributors. All agree that Britain’s bill must be as high as possible; anything less, and either the rich countries will have to make up the difference or the poor will suffer cuts. Any old Brussels hand will tell you that nothing riles negotiators so much as arguments over money. British attempts to buy off this or that country are likely to founder – and could poison the well on a free trade deal.

Second, the mood towards Britain has hardened. Whatever British officials think, Eurocrats reckon they came close to breaking EU rules last year in constructing a ­settlement that David Cameron could sell to British voters. This time, Britain will be treated like any other third country; it has a certain leverage, but can expect no favours. In addition, the 27 want to make an example of UK suffering to put off others tempted by leaving. Theresa May felt the sharp end of this approach last year when she tried to strike bilateral deals to guarantee the rights of British nationals in EU countries, and vice versa. Fairly or otherwise, this was seen as a clumsy attempt to set Europe’s governments against one another. Her bid went nowhere, and the EU’s guard is now up.

That the 27 proved so bloody-minded on an issue of such obvious mutual concern is indicative. Roiled by one crisis after another, Europe’s governments are determined not to allow Brexit to tear them apart. If they are struggling to manufacture a common vision for the future – the March declaration, to mark the 60th anniversary of the EU’s founding treaty, will fall woefully short of expectations heaped on it – they will resist common threats. Governments inside the EU will always squabble and fall out. But today the stakes are unusually high. Even troublemakers such as Hungary and Poland know how much their prosperity and security depend on the EU holding together.

Still, if the government calibrates its tactics correctly, prizes may await: a better trade agreement, or (more realistically), the prospect of opening trade talks before the divorce terms are concluded, an idea the EC detests but Britain craves. Yet it is a gamble with high stakes; if the government misfires it will increase its chances of walking off the Brexit cliff without any deal at all. The withdrawal agreement needs approval by an “enhanced majority” of EU members (at least 20 of the 27 governments, representing at least 65 per cent of the population of the 27). Any subsequent free trade deal may require ratification in dozens of parliament across the EU. Sometimes unity works in Britain’s interests.

These days, no Brexit speech from a British minister is complete without a paean to the virtues of a strong EU. As well as good policy – only a fool would wish destruction on their largest trading partner – this is sensible politics. Under siege from enemies within and without, Europe’s politicians will hardly feel generous if they detect British perfidy across the negotiating table. That is why they will be hypersensitive to any ­attempt to play divide and rule. It may have worked for half a millennium, but it would be dangerous politics today. 

Tom Nuttall writes the Economist’s Charlemagne column

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit

Protesters interrupt a Corbyn event. Credit: Getty
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If Jeremy Corbyn opposes intervention in Syria, he should have more to say about Russia

The Labour leader’s quest for peace looks like something else: a willingness to repeat Russian propaganda.

“For the next three hours I urge members to just focus on Syria,” the Labour MP Alison McGovern asked of her colleagues at the start of Monday's debate, after the UK joined in airstrikes on Syria. “They deserve that.” It was no surprise to veteran Syria watchers that the leader of her party, Jeremy Corbyn, responded to this simple request by spending a quarter of his speech talking about Yemen.

Corbyn’s frequent calls for diplomacy over the conflict in Syria sound reasonable, and certainly have the support of many voters. Yet the Labour leader often treats Russia as a good-faith actor in the conflict, even as it pumps out propaganda in support of the Assad regime. Corbyn's executive director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne, meanwhile, has a reputation for being, in his former life as a journalist, sympathetic to Russia. More recently, he is said to have suggested that Russia's involvement had stabilised the region. 

In light of this, Corbyn's quest for peace looks like something else: a willingness to repeat Russian propaganda and implicitly support its intervention in the conflict, but not intervention by the west. 

In his opening speech on Monday, Corbyn referred to the inspection of the Assad regime’s weapons facility in 2017. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons inspected two sites, Barzah and Jamraya, between February and March of that year (the Him Shinsar facility mentioned by Corbyn in his speech was not referred to in the 2017 OPCW report, but was a target of the most recent strikes). On 4 April 2017, chemical weapons were reportedly used against the civilian population in the the Khan Shaykhun area of southern Idlib, a rebel-held region, with children listed among the 80 dead. Three days later, the US launched an air strike on an Assad regime airbase. 

Corbyn quoted a line in the July 2017 OPCW report, which stated: “the inspection team did not observe any activities inconsistent with obligations”. The same line is repeated in a Russia Today article, alongside regime denials that the facility was a chemical weapons factory.

Look closer at the OPCW report, though, and it becomes clear that the regime refused to allow OPCW inspectors on site for an entire month. It also ignores the political restraints governing weapons inspectors: in late 2017, Russia used its UN security veto to block the OPCW’s Joint Investigative Mechanism, responsible for investigating responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

The Labour leader also used his speech to allege that chemical weapons have been used by “other groups” in the conflict, referring to an alleged chlorine attack in Aleppo in 2016 blamed on the Saudi-backed rebel group Jaish al-Islam. The single incident in question was reported by Amnesty International, although it has never been verified by the OPCW. The claim that Jaish al-Islam are responsible for using chemical weapons is murky at best, despite their many other crimes. There are only two actors in the Syrian war that have been confirmed to have used chemical weapons by the OPCW: the Assad regime and Isis

Corbyn also dedicated part of his speech to Yemen. While the conflict in Yemen is undoubtedly appalling, and Western governments have been one-sided in their intervention, perspective is needed. At 10,000 casualties, the death toll in Yemen is 50 times lower than the more than half a million dead estimated in Syria. Nor has any side in Yemen been found guilty of using chemical weapons, which is the charge levelled against the Assad regime - and the rationale for the strikes being debated in parliament. Why talk about another conflict altogether except to avoid the issue of chemical weapons use in Syria?

Is it really possible for the man that was once known as “the Left’s foreign secretary” to get basic priorities so wrong? Corbyn has been here before. In 2013, the then backbencher was chair of the Stop The War Coalition. Shortly after the regime’s chemical weapons atrocity in Eastern Ghouta, Stop the War invited a pro-regime nun, Sister Agnes, who claimed children in footage of the attack were simply “sleeping”, to present the regime’s case (Mother Agnes withdrew after the ensuing protest). 

On the face of it, his Stop the War credentials do suggest that Corbyn is consistently against intervention. Much has been said of his inability to think of a scenario in which he was willing to deploy British forces. Yet a 2015 interview published in the Observer reported that Corbyn opposed military intervention in Syria, but supported Russian troops being there, if they were there for peacekeeping purposes. (Labour sources say Corbyn’s intention was to speak in support of UN peacekeepers).

Corbyn’s 2015 view may be more nuanced than it was presented on paper, but there are reports of a similar view put more bluntly by his spokesman Seumas Milne. At a private event in London early last year, two witnesses report hearing Milne, during the course of a conversation, remark that “the situation had improved” since Moscow entered the fray and had brought “stability” to the conflict. (A Labour source said: “The claims about Seumas Milne's views and comments are nonsense.”) 

Public statements from the Labour party have on occasion sought to downplay Russian involvement in international conflicts. In October 2016, as public concern about the plight of civilians in Syria mounted, a senior spokesperson for the Labour leader declared: “The focus on Russian atrocities or Syrian army atrocities I think sometimes diverts attention from other atrocities that are taking place.” Milne was named by Labour MPs as the spokesperson responsible for a statement put out by the leader’s office which questioned the evidence that the Kremlin was to blame for the poisoning of a former Russia spy in Salisbury. 

On the surface, Corbyn has one constructive argument: that Britain should avoid unilateral or multilateral military action, and work through the UN. Yet this, too, is disingenuous. Russia continuously uses its security council veto to block any and all meaningful resolutions on Syria. Most recently, it vetoed the very OPCW investigation into the chemical weapons attack on Douma that Corbyn had been calling for. As the situation stands, the OPCW is restricted to merely confirming whether or not such an attack took place and what substance was used, not assigning blame. Even its limited task will be difficult enough task considering Russian forces have been at the attack site for days. 

Speaking to Andrew Marr the day after the airstrikes, Corbyn said: “I can only countenance involvement in Syria if there's a UN authority behind it.” This implies that he could, in theory, back UN-led intervention. Yet a close look at his record contradicts this: even when there was a UN resolution about Libya he did not support military action. In 2011, in a Guardian piece entitled “Libya and the suspicious rush to war,” Corbyn expressed his scepticism about the real intention of UN Resolution 1973 on Libya, which authorised military intervention to establish a no-fly zone, a proposal that was supported by 75 per cent of Libyans. On 21 March 2011, he voted against a parliamentary motion welcoming the use of UK military to establish a no-fly zone in Libya.

Defenders of Corbyn argue that he opposed the intervention because of the possibility of "mission creep" – and in this he was proved right. Yet when it comes to Syria, the hard truth is that the international community has been fruitlessly pushing for a political settlement for years. Diplomacy has failed repeatedly. Since Russia's military intervention, the Assad regime has regained territory, and it has no intention of negotiating a surrender in a war it is winning. Assad has openly mocked the UN process, which he says is a “game”.

This is illustrated by the plight of Eastern Ghouta. The region was supposed to be a “de-escalation” zone – a status agreed by the Russians, the regime and groups within Eastern Ghouta. Yet the Assad regime took advantage of the ceasefire to cleanse the area of opposition. It did so with impunity, precisely because there were no international mechanisms in place to safeguard a ceasefire. 

After the parliamentary debate, the verdict seemed to be that most MPs backed the Prime Minister’s actions, including many from Labour. Yet some Corbynite MPs chose to shun parliament in favour of the Stop The War demonstration outside. One, Chris Williamson, said of the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons “The motive is questionable, the evidence – where is the evidence? It just isn’t there.”

Meanwhile, in her closing remarks, Alison McGovern urged the government to listen to Syrians: “The world will be a safer place if we can rebuild the simple principle that no ruler has the right to brutally slaughter their own citizens, not in Syria and not anywhere.”