Do you feel lucky?

Initial signs are that the EU has got its act together

EU critics and enthusiasts alike would acknowledge that the European institutions have rarely shown themselves in a positive light over recent years. Ramshackle, laborious negotiations; animosity rarely far from the surface (particularly with regard to the Euro), labyrinthine processes underpinned by a Brussels machine far removed from the bulk of the populations it is supposed to serve.

So wouldn’t it be a thing if Brexit, the event many thought would expose still more ruthlessly the flaws in the European project, instead pricks the EU into a rather steely resolve?

Day One of Brexit negotiations is not the time to draw hard conclusions about the nature of the negotiation. The two negotiating teams will not even see the whites of one another’s eyes for some time.

But initial signs are that the EU has got its act together. The voices from the continent are strikingly unified. The Barnier team looks professional, and projects an attitude suggests they have the latitude to act, and the confidence their political masters have got their back.

This is a little disconcerting. Many people in the UK would have expected a David and Goliath contest: nimble, disciplined Whitehall running rings around the stumbling EU colossus. The Prime Minister’s insistence on control and tight management of message and strategy was designed for this dynamic.

Instead there are reasons to sorely doubt the UK government’s ability to stay united. The air has not cleared between Number Ten and the Treasury following a rancorous budget; and the divisions that exist in Whitehall regarding the ability to both have and eat cake could quickly get just as ugly.

It will all change, of course. It is a long process. The UK staring down the barrel of WTO rules with Michel Barnier mouthing “Do you feel lucky, punk..?” is not an image built to last. My expectation is that the whole thing will degenerate into an undignified mud-wrestle over time. But anyone in HMG who expected to run rings around the EU negotiating team is having to rethink.