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‘Divide and rule’ shows early promise as EU unity cracks

An inevitable feature of a club of 27 separate countries – with different interests, outlooks and economic means – is the difficulty of reaching a common position.

For Remain campaigners, this was an argument for staying in – it will take the EU years to agree a new trading relationship with the UK (ref: Canada) so we’d be better off in the club.

For Leave campaigners, it was an argument for getting out – why shackle ourselves to a bloc which finds it so difficult to reach a common position that it still doesn’t have trade deals with America or China, whereas tiny Iceland (outside the world’s top 100 economies) does.

Hence the UK’s ‘divide and rule’ approach: given the EU always finds it hard to reach a common position, let’s turn it to our advantage.

So far we have seen suggestions eastern European countries may receive more UK aid in future, David Davis has been touring the chancelleries of Europe identifying specific interests, and ministers have made oblique references to the importance of UK defence and intelligence capabilities to particular European countries.

Which is why the early cracks in EU unity are worth noting. Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s president and lead negotiator, have the biggest personal interest in ensuring unity. In the Brexit negotiations, the Commission derives its power from the 27 member states, not the other way around. Without unity at the level of 27, Michel Barnier and his sherpas cannot speak with authority, let alone coherence, in the negotiation room.

So it will be disconcerting to the Commission that allies of Angela Merkel are undermining their core strategy before negotiations even begin. Barnier and Juncker have been clear – the UK must agree to pay a ‘divorce bill’ approaching €60 billion before discussions over the future UK-EU trading relationship can start.

Not so fast, says Berlin. On Tuesday, The Times revealed the German government’s disquiet at the Commission’s approach. On Wednesday, Stephan Mayer – the home affairs spokesman for Merkel’s party who helped broker her governing coalitions in 2009 and 2013 – appeared on the Today programme to reject the €60 billion figure, criticise how the Commission is conducting the negotiations, and insist discussions over divorce and future relationship should occur in parallel.

It’s important not to overstate the case. This single example of EU disunity may be quickly resolved and does not necessarily imply wider malaise. There remain strong currents at all levels of the EU determined to preserve the political project at all costs, regardless of economic considerations. And if EU countries can’t reach a common position at all, the UK could suffer without any deal.

But in a complex and difficult negotiation, there must be at least some gain from having a single, clear, unified position on one side of the table vs 27 competing and disparate interests on the other. The UK government hopes division among EU member states and institutions will play into its hands.

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