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

Published:Wednesday | March 21, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May

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 road map 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 realise 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 ($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.