Brexit Starting to Strain Europe's United Front, People Say

(Bloomberg) -- National interests are starting to test the united front that the 27 remaining European Union members have shown so far during the Brexit talks, according to three people with knowledge of the process.

Less than a week before EU leaders meet to consider a transition deal for the U.K., their officials have aired their differences over the way forward, the people said, asking not to be named discussing private talks. At issue is whether to add language on specific industries -- and addressing the concerns of specific countries -- to their mandate for chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

At a meeting in Brussels this week, Spain -- whose national airline Iberia is owned by the same company as British Airways -- signaled it would like specific references to aviation while Luxembourg wants more detail on financial services. Fisheries and agriculture could also be given more detail.

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But other countries believe the guidelines should remain broad to facilitate unity and give Barnier flexibility as the British government’s position evolves. They also want to avoid accusations of “cherry picking” -- a charge the EU-27 have frequently leveled at the U.K.

British efforts to create divisions between the remaining countries have yielded few returns so far, despite ministers’ frequent trips to national capitals. Yet as the negotiations shift toward the two sides’ future partnership, European diplomats acknowledge that national interests will diverge and a common position will be more difficult to maintain.

A press officer at the Spanish Foreign Ministry wasn’t immediately able to comment. A spokesman for the Luxembourg government didn’t immediately respond when contacted by Bloomberg News.

Irish Border

Draft EU guidelines for the next phase of negotiations were published earlier this month and will form the basis of the statement EU leaders will release after their summit next Friday.

A fresh version was circulated to capitals late Friday to reflect ambassadors’ discussions at their meeting Thursday. While there were minor alterations, there was no addition of the greater details wanted by some countries, an official said. Representatives from national governments -- the so-called sherpas -- will cast their eyes over the draft on Monday before EU affairs ministers do the same on Tuesday.

Thursday’s meeting also saw Ireland make its case for the U.K. to show progress on a plan to prevent the re-emergence of a hard Irish border before the EU agrees to a post-Brexit transition period.

There is no formal link between the border issue and the transition deal, but Ireland wants U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s government to publicly accept the need for a “fallback” option. The EU has suggested that Northern Ireland could remain within the bloc’s customs union if the U.K. can’t come up with an alternative solution, officials said. May rejected that proposal out of hand.

The three people familiar with this week’s discussions in Brussels said that while there was complete solidarity with Ireland, they didn’t see the issue derailing a transition deal next week so long as the terms of the transition itself can be hammered out when negotiators meet over the weekend.

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