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.

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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