In Brexit talks, unity has been EU's trump card over Britain

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, right, reaches out to shake hands with British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis prior to a meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels on Monday, March 19, 2018. (Virginia Mayo)
European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, right, gestures as he meets with British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis at EU headquarters in Brussels on Monday, March 19, 2018. (Virginia Mayo)

BRUSSELS — The answer should be a no-brainer: Who can show a more unified front, the United Kingdom or the 27 disparate countries on the other side of the Brexit negotiating table?

In the topsy-turvy world of Britain's divorce negotiations with the European Union, it is the EU that has shown far more unity.

Twelve months on since the government of Prime Minister Theresa May triggered the two-year Brexit talks, the sides have finally made some progress ahead of an EU leaders' summit Thursday. It's clear that the EU has, so far, come out on top, putting paid to any hopes in Britain of using its old imperial "divide-and-rule" tactics.

"It is all for one, and one for all," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told the EU parliament last week, with a literary flourish straight from Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers.

By contrast, the divisions on the British side are numerous and have the potential to wreck May's government. One year before its planned departure, May's government has yet to present a detailed roadmap for departure lest it create more political chaos at home.

"The EU has set the Brexit agenda and timetable and has won at every stage so far," said Professor Simon Hix of the London School of Economics.

The bloc's secret for "winning united" goes back to the inception of the European Union over 60 years ago. Barely recovered from the devastation of World War II, the original six members rallied together around erstwhile enemies France and Germany, vowing to reach prosperity through unity and cooperation.

Britain was much less dependent on that sort of European teamwork and became a member of what was then the European Economic Community in 1973. Throughout its membership and until the 2016 Brexit vote, Britain was a less than enthusiastic member, securing opt-outs, most notably to the euro single currency, and resisting many of the calls for closer integration.

Over the decades, the EU has grown from a small grouping in western Europe to one that stretches towards the Arctic and Africa and borders Russia and Turkey. Its countries are led by a disparate mix of left-wing socialists and right-wing nationalists. It has built a legal and political system that ties everyone together even if there are disagreements.

And yet, it has managed to avoid any public disagreements in the Brexit talks.

"We pool our resources," Juncker said, "to strengthen one another and to give ourselves more serenity when dealing with the rest of the world. We see this with Brexit. We see this with trade. We see this across the board."

As a bloc, the EU has an economic might it can use to obtain leverage in the Brexit talks. It is the world's biggest trading bloc — with Britain in, it's a single market of around 500 million people. And the executive body, the Commission, has political control to instill discipline among the bloc's members. It provides tens of billions of euros a year in help for poorer member nations and it negotiates on behalf of all members on big issues like global trade.

"When you're negotiating with a big monster like the EU, you're in a very weak position," said Hix. "It seems remarkable to me the British government didn't seem to realize that. The EU has all the cards."

Many in the British government think a Brexit deal will be secured because of the economics involved. They note the scale of Britain's purchases of EU goods and services — 318 billion pounds ($445 billion) in 2016.

As Britain leaves the EU and its tariff-less single market, goods and services would face new duties, hurting companies on both sides. Brexit proponents say a no-deal scenario is a "lose-lose" situation and will lead the EU to agree on favorable new trade terms.

However, those close to the discussions have argued that the EU's main focus is to not undermine its single market by giving Britain preferential trade access without being a part of the EU. The risk is other countries could then be tempted to leave the EU and single market as well.

Stefaan De Rynck, senior advisor to Barnier, said businesses in the EU "are more concerned with maintaining the integrity of the single market than any loss of access to British markets."

The sides struck an agreement on a transition deal Monday that will keep Britain in the single market until the end of 2020, a full 21 months after Brexit is officially set to take place. The hope is that the transition will provide businesses on both sides some clarity to plan ahead.

David Davis, the British government's Brexit minister, says the progress made on the transition is a harbinger of things to come.

"This will be the biggest, most comprehensive, most effective trade deal ever," he said.

Ireland is in the front line of the Brexit discussions and could stand to be one of the biggest losers given that it exports some 14 percent of its goods to the U.K. and has a near invisible border with the U.K.'s Northern Ireland.

Ever since the referendum, EU nations have kept Dublin in the fold, and promised to do their utmost to keep the border as permeable as possible. Barnier and all top EU leaders have spent a lot of time trying to make sure Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is not wooed by May.

"The 27 are in solidarity, and the 26 are in solidarity with the Dublin government," the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has vowed.

"Don't lose your time imagining that there will be conflicts between the negotiator and the EU members. It will not happen."

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Pylas reported from London

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