David Davis, Britain’s Brexit secretary. Photograph: Maja Suslin/EPA

February 20, 2017

British attempts to “blackmail and divide” EU countries in the run-up to Brexit negotiations will lead to a disastrous “crash-landing” out of the bloc, European politicians have told the Guardian.

They add that the approach being pursued by Theresa May’s government will leave the UK without a free trade deal – with perilous consequences for the country.

Formal talks are due to open next month, but a trio of parliamentary leaders and a close ally of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, say those talks risk ending in failure unless Britain changes what they say are “divide and rule” tactics.

They believe the situation is further complicated by domestic hardline political and media pressure in the UK, which they argue makes compromise difficult and reinforces the feeling in London that the country will simply get whatever it wants.

A leaked European parliament report seen by the Guardian goes even further, accusing Britain of trying to “move the goalposts and do away with the referee” in the upcoming international clash of negotiators once article 50 is invoked.

At the root of the anger is the belief that Britain does not appreciate that the EU27 nations also have red lines.

“The benefits go to the UK only,” said Tomáš Prouza, the Czech minister for EU affairs. “There is a real danger that British politics, with all its whipped up resentments of Europe, will mean British negotiators are unable to compromise, and we will head for a crash-landing.”

That view is shared in many national capitals. Elmar Brok, a German MEP and a close friend and political ally of Merkel, said the British government should not underestimate the strength of the EU’s resolve. He said colleagues had told him Britain was seeking to win over MEPs, but it would end in failure.

“The British government tries to divide and rule,” he said. “They believe they can take members of parliament out of certain nations … to win support by dividing us. If they try to negotiate while trying to interfere in our side then we can do that too. We can make a big fuss over Scotland. Or Northern Ireland.”

A Guardian series starting today examining Britain’s Brexit gamble reveals the two sides are further apart than ever on issues ranging from the size of the divorce bill to the legal supervision of any transitional deal and the timing of trade talks.

The Brexit secretary, David Davis, and minister David Jones have held meetings with politicians from Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Latvia and Estonia as part of a high-stakes charm offensive designed to find more sympathetic allies in the face of hardening opposition particularly among larger countries.

On Sunday, it was reported that Downing Street officials and senior cabinet ministers wanted to divert part of the annual aid budget to eastern European countries in the hope of winning their support for a good trade deal. And on Monday Davis is understood to be beginning a trip to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to discuss Brexit plans and build ties with the Baltic states.

He maintains that his recent trip to Finland and Sweden was merely to “talk to our old allies” about the upcoming negotiations. “We have a lot in common with both these countries,” he said. “We had an extremely positive set of discussions … about the need for a positive approach.”

Meetings with MEPs in Strasbourg have been matched by visits from European leaders to London that are said to show their mutual interest in retaining constructive backchannels.

But Manfred Weber, leader of the EPP, the biggest group in the European parliament, told the Guardian that Britain’s strategy risked the opposite by fracturing any consensus on the EU side about a potential deal.

“They have a plan and that’s clear,” he said. “But there is a commission negotiator. There is not a negotiator from Germany. There is only the European commission negotiator, Michel Barnier, he will be sitting next to David Davis. If you split up Europe into different interests it will not be easy to get unanimity at the European council.”

Other leaders of the three largest groups in the European parliament, which has to ratify an exit deal along with the House of Commons, agreed that the strategy could backfire.

“Any attempts by UK ministers to divide EU countries will only slow down and complicate negotiations,” said Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE group and the parliament’s Brexit point man. “The EU will negotiate as a united bloc.”

Gianni Pittella, leader of the socialist bloc in the parliament, said the UK’s apparent attempt to split Europe was “certainly not the best way to kick off very complicated negotiations. This inappropriate attitude could undermine the outcome.”

He also said recent threats that Britain could become a low-tax state if it did not achieve a good deal with the EU were a form of blackmail: “I was surprised because I don’t think it is in the interests of the UK to open this phase in an aggressive way. We reject this blackmail. It is not fair, it is not elegant, it is not useful.”

The scale of the challenge the UK faces in even arranging a transitional deal – to cushion the exit and allow space for a free trade deal to be struck – is illustrated in a report by the European parliament’s legal affairs committee.

A foreword to the report suggests it will be “difficult if not impossible” to get agreement among the EU27 and their national parliaments.

On the substance of a transitional deal, it adds that allowing the UK to continue in the single market without respecting the jurisdiction of the European court or permitting free movement would be like “allowing a national football association to decide it will set its own rules on the size of the ball, the number of players on the field and the width of the goal and do away with the referee, whilst purporting still to be able to take part in the European championship”.

Many in Brussels and other capitals feel the biggest threat to an orderly Brexit is domestic political pressure on May from leave hardliners within and outside the government, and from the pro-Brexit press, whose headlines calling the high court judges in the article 50 case “enemies of the people” were viewed on the continent with horror.

European leaders also feel the UK government’s perceived enthusiasm for Brexit masks a profound misapprehension about the real strength of its position in the upcoming exit talks. “They seem to seriously believe they can take without giving,” one London-based EU diplomat said.

While breezily dismissed by British ministers, including the foreign secretary, with suggestions that the value of prosecco, BMW and cheese exports will guarantee the UK a good deal, the EU27 have shown remarkable consistency on their Brexit red lines since the days after the UK referendum.

These have focused on issues such as no negotiations before notification, the indivisibility of the single market’s four freedoms, particularly free movement, and the impossibility of having your cake and eating it – or “cherry-picking”, as Merkel has repeatedly called it.

Nor is it just politicians showing unity. Continental businesspeople, including German car industry bosses, have repeatedly indicated they are willing to take a hit to their bottom lines from inferior trade terms with the UK if it means securing the integrity and continued stability of the single market.

“I don’t think the UK has fully understood that for the most part both politicians and businessmen in Europe still really value the EU and the single market and think it something that is worth fighting for,” one Brussels diplomat said. “Economic rationality will not be the deciding factor here.”

The EU27 are also well aware that once article 50 has been triggered, the clock starts ticking on a two-year negotiating period in which the pressure is plainly on the British. For the EU27, only one thing really matters in Brexit, as Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, among several others has repeatedly made plain.

“We want a fair deal for the UK,” Muscat said. “But that deal needs to be inferior to membership … Thinking it can be otherwise indicates a detachment from reality.”

Few on the continent seem convinced Britain has grasped this. “At the moment, it seems like Mrs May thinks of the EU as a restaurant where she can walk in order everything on the menu and then demand that the restaurant itself pays the bill,” the former Bulgarian prime minister Sergei Stanishev said last week.

“My view this is creating an illusion for domestic purposes, or it’s wishful thinking.”



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