Brexit negotiations: how is the UK doing?

Last year, before Brexit negotiations got started, I wrote this short piece outlining my thoughts – as someone with many years of experience negotiating with and on behalf of the EU – on how the UK should approach these talks. It is no coincidence that my friend and former colleague Steve Bullock shared similar thoughts a couple of months back. We are now well into the negotiation phase. How has the UK side been doing? Time to take stock.

Those negotiating tips I gave can be boiled down to three golden rules:


Goodwill is your most valuable resource, hoard it and spend it sparingly.

As I said, you negotiate better with partners, not with opponents. International negotiations are rarely a zero-sum game, and usually the two sides will have broadly overlapping objectives or goals which are for the most part compatible, mutually achievable. For example, both the UK and the EU want a future trading relationship that is as frictionless as possible. If we accept that, outside the EU, there is going to be some friction compared to the status quo, nevertheless it is definitely possible to find a way to reduce it while respecting each other’s red lines. But to do that you need to be working together towards this common goal.

From the outset, the UK has burned through goodwill as if it were an inexhaustible, ever-renewable resource. It is not. Compiling a list of examples demonstrating how the UK has damaged goodwill since the referendum would take me all day and fill far too much space. Just off the top of my head: accusing the EU of meddling in the UK’s election; ad hominem attacks on Juncker and Barnier; treating EU citizens living in the UK with contempt; telling the EU it can “go whistle” for the money which the UK had already committed to spending; threatening to withhold cooperation on security and counter-terrorism… the list goes on and on. None of this was necessary, none of it did anything whatsoever to advance the UK’s negotiating objectives, all it has done is squander goodwill where we most desperately need it.


Know yourself.

The first advice given to anyone going into an auction is: know your limit. Self-awareness is generally a good idea when undertaking any project. Know what you want, know what you need, know what you are capable of getting, and have a sense of how you are going to achieve it.

“And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” The UK is hopelessly divided. And yet not only have British leaders done nothing to try to mend that schism, they have repeatedly and consistently denied that it even exists. The country is coming together behind Brexit, says Theresa May, again and again, against all the evidence. This comes across as panglossian self-delusion because it’s plain to everyone else, inside and outside the UK, that it’s not true. But not only is the kingdom divided against itself, so is the government. Minister briefs against minister, civil servant after civil servant quits, policy papers take an eternity to see the light of day, and when they do they are contradictory, implausible, short on detail, or just plain vacuous. Positions are taken, then reversed, then reasserted. Stakeholders cannot trust anything they are told because they are told very little and what little they are told is demonstrably false or contradicted by previous and subsequent statements.


Know your negotiating partner.

This isn’t rocket science. Good intelligence is always essential. Know your opposite number’s strengths and weaknesses, know their red lines, know their personalities. Luckily for the UK, it is negotiating with an organisation it knows intimately from the inside and which shares its DNA. So how is it that the UK shows again and again that it doesn’t really understand the EU and even that it doesn’t have much interest in understanding the EU? Oh, I know that key people on the UK side know the EU very well – civil servants have spent years working with and often in the EU institutions and they are not stupid. But these are the same civil servants that keep quitting, or being shunted aside. “The UK has had enough of experts” we are told. The German car industry will ride to the rescue, we are told. We will have our cake and eat it, we are told. We can be in the Single Market and yet not in the Single Market, we are told. The Prime Minister scorns an invitation to speak to the European Parliament but goes instead to Florence to give a speech. She gets to work on Merkel and Macron rather than Tusk and Juncker. Sat here in Brussels watching events unfold, the UK government’s actions scream ignorance of basic EU realities. They scream wishful thinking. The UK government seems to be dealing with a fantasy EU that resembles the caricature presented in British tabloids, not the real EU of which it has been a core member for over four decades.


This morning as I write this, Twitter is once again abuzz with something Boris Johnson has said. He thinks Brexit talks will fail and that Theresa May “will be humiliated”. “Nobody ever beats the EU in a negotiation” he apparently ‘told a friend’. If he really thinks this, it’s odd that he worked so hard to put his country into a negotiation with the EU, and then to frame this negotiation in needlessly confrontational, zero sum terms, so that the UK can only win if the EU loses.

Boris is right, insofar as he says that the EU rarely emerges from a negotiation as a loser. But he is utterly wrong if he thinks this means that the EU’s negotiating partners must necessarily then be the losers. As I said back in October last year, the EU’s default approach to negotiations is to find a way for both sides to win. This is the best guarantee of success. By spurning this approach from the outset, the UK has engineered its own probable defeat.

It is this, I think, that has most shocked and alienated the EU side. Cooperative, collegiate, consensus building is so baked into the way we work that it has become a reflex. After all, it’s why the EU was created in the first place. In our daily lives, we look for solutions that work for multiple and diverse interested parties. If we did not do this, we would not be here. The UK has been part of this for forty years and has generally been a very good player of the game. In Parliament Committees, in Council Working Groups, in Commission inter-service meetings,  Brits have earned a reputation for finding creative solutions, skilfully drafting inclusive language, and putting the emphasis on pragmatism and results. The referendum result was a massive shock, yes, but surely the British would deal with it in a pragmatic and sensible way? There was a widespread assumption that the UK would implement the referendum result in its typically sober, intelligent way to minimise shock to itself and the rest of the EU and build a solid foundation for a mutually advantageous future relationship. The opposite has happened. This is simply shocking and will have a lasting impact on the country’s influence and reputation.

27 thoughts on “Brexit negotiations: how is the UK doing?

  1. Zen Master

    Your last line sums it up for me.

    If Brexit was ‘only’ about damaging our own living standards, risking our prosperity, jeopardising our jobs – then perhaps (at a huge stretch) I could accept it was worth it for some ‘grand’ vision of ‘sovereignty’. But the damage to the UK’s brand – its reputation, its international standing and its diplomatic power is as big a betrayal of our interests as the economic damage. The only people who benefit from our diminished stature and weakened institutions are our enemies.

  2. Ulrich Tromm

    The UK is exiting and potentially weakening the EU at a point in time when the EU is much in need of being strengthened as a player in international politics. The Tory goernment is failing Europe.

  3. Federico

    I agree, but it was always going to be thus. A government which has made the logic and the worldview of the Brexiteers its foundation can’t possibly be expected to think and act rationally or in the national interest, because if it did so it would instantly disown the very thing which now defines it to the core. Brexit was the triumph of ignorance, jingoism and self-delusion – translated into government, it can be nothing other than an utter shambles.

    Perhaps Theresa May could have taken a much more sensible, sober and pragmatic approach to Brexit, but she chose to embrace the worst possible elements of Brexit for perceived political gain. She and the Tories are now reaping the rewards, even though it will be the country that will suffer, as always.

    We need to start openly saying the increasingly obvious: there is no possible happy ending to the Brexit fairy tale, and the sooner we recognise this the sooner we can do a U-turn and try to get back to where we started from, if the EU will let us. Because sooner or later that’s where we’re going back to, even if it takes a generation. The young people of today will not stand for the way in which their future has been spat on by the Baby Boomers. Why put ourselves through this charade any moment longer?

    1. Chris Kendall Post author

      I agree, but there is no going back to where we started from. I’m not sure Brexit can be reversed at this stage. And I can’t see Britain rejoining as it stands, something has to change profoundly in the way British politics and society work. I fear this is going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.

      1. Frank_T

        But that is exactly what is going on right now. British politics IS changing. The article, as well some comments here, describes this very clearly. Instead of sober, pragmatic policy we now see a shambolic cavalcade of clowns and worse. This can last for some time, but not forever. At some stage there is going to be a major upheaval in the political arena. The current Tory party leadership is not just squandering goodwill in the EU. It is also undermining its own standing in the eyes of many of its supporters, MPs, party volunteers and voters. At some stage these are going to conclude that their interests are no longer served by the leadership. In fact, many probably already have. They are just tarrying and working up courage and decisiveness to act on that conclusion.
        I predict that the Conservative party will split over Brexit within 12 to 18 months, or see a substantial defection to UKIP, which will amount to the same thing. Labour will take a bit longer, but it will either have to deal with the fact that Corbyn’s radicalism will not convince the electorate, or it will also split into a radical socialist and a social-democratic party, the latter probably also anti-Brexit.
        The British political landscape will have changed completely.

        1. Chris Kendall Post author

          I hope you’re right – this needs to happen, and the planets appear to be aligning. But I remain sceptical, simply because I think there are structural reasons why UK politics and public life are the way they are, to do with a number of things but above all the education system, and I don’t see them changing, at least not organically. So any radical change is likely to be revolutionary rather than evolutionary and such changes are never good in the short term.

      2. Rob

        The only direct blockers are the imagined will of the people and political egos. The EU would welcome us back into the fold (we might even be able to retain Thatcher’s rebate if we’re smart about it).

          1. vetch101

            Yes – it seems highly unlikely that we could retain the rebate (although in economic terms, the rebate is mostly irrelevant, it matters for the political optics)…

            More importantly, I suspect we’d be unlikely to be able to retain our Euro opt-out… particularly given Junker’s recent state of the union announcement.

            For anyone who wants to reverse the current path, the recent dynamics will make it more challenging to achieve.

  4. Martin Cole

    This passage is particularly adrift from reality…”Boris is right, insofar as he says that the EU rarely emerges from a negotiation as a loser. But he is utterly wrong if he thinks this means that the EU’s negotiating partners must necessarily then be the losers. As I said back in October last year, the EU’s default approach to negotiations is to find a way for both sides to win. This is the best guarantee of success. By spurning this approach from the outset, the UK has engineered its own probable defeat.”

    The EU negotiates for the couple of thousand or so it considers “US”. They are always the winners in EU negotiations, while thir abandoned countrymen in the Member States, are stripped of their Sovereignty, denuded of democracy and increasingly even their very lifestyles & any chance of prosperity are eroded to feed the corrupt beast that ever more finely regulates even the trivia of their daily lives.

    1. Michael Dommett

      That isn’t true. Abandoned? How, where? Greek problems – borrow money and don’t collect the taxes from the rich and big business? Corrupt beast? That’s not true either. Stripped of sovereignty? The UK Parliament could look at EU legislation somewhat better, yes, but the degree of sovereignty we’d lose in the European Project was recognised by Ralph Brotherton in 1955, leading the UK delegation out because the European project included sacrifice of some political and economic sovereignty. 1959 knowing this we applied to join. The 1975 pamphlet – I have a copy – mentions loss of sovereignty and says it reckons it’s worth it. Denuded of democracy? Any commissioner and the president can be removed by a Majority vote of the European parliament. Junkers wants closer integration, as per his recent speech? But 27 leaders decide what happens. That’s why the UK isn’t in the euro, shenigen… You may feel this way, or a newspaper or columnist has written this, but taking each assertion, they aren’t actually accurate.

    2. toft

      Why is it Britons persist in ranting on about sovereignty ? No nation, however powerful, has total freedom to do as it wants : there are international treaties to be respected. : but large blocks can push their weight round much more effectively than smal nation states. Why does Britain go on ranting about democracy ( in the E.U. ) ? Decisions are only carried out if the member states agree : all the latter are composed of elected governments. It is not a direct democracy, just as in the States the ”Great Electors” pick the president and in Britain the winning party chooses the P.M. Moreover, there is far better and more logical democracy in the E.U. than in Britain. Had I been French living abroad, I could vote in French Governement elections. But not as a Briton living outside the U.K., as I a have been there over 15 years. Being allowed to vote is a basic Human Right, but not in England There are between 4.5 and 5 million Britons residing abroad : how may of them could not vote in the Brexit referundem, whereas Commonwealth citizens in England like Nigerians, Pakistanis could ? Why do the Britons rant about the ”Brussels Gravy Train” when you hae scandals involving M.P. expenses in Westminster ? As for ”trivia of their daily lives” why is it then we hear P.M. May saying she will incorporate, for instance, EU labour legislation in to British law ?

  5. Sean Danaher

    Hi Paul
    many thanks for this; I found myself agreeing with pretty much every word. I’m Irish but have lived in the UK for many years (since 1981). I can’t see Brexit going well and even after a year experience mourning, shock, depression and anger about the whole thing and am particularly annoyed about the effect it may have on the Island of Ireland.

    I’m one of the editors of Progressive Pulse and wonder if we could link to or use this article? I would normal email but there seems to be no contact form? I won’t be offended if you say no and thanks again for your efforts here.

  6. Frederic

    As a Frenchman, I sadly do not recognize the country which was an example for the world in the 60s and 70s for fashion, music, adorable eccentricity, etc… (I do not speak about economics tough)

    Unfortunately, I do not think Brexit could be reversed, even in a decade, unless the everyday poison dose of the tabloids will be instilled in the minds of uneducated people on a daily basis. When you read it in the distance, it is incredibely powerfull and efficient. And if today’s dose is not strong enough, tomorrow’s dose will remidy.

    I am not really optimistic for the years to come.

    Will visit your lovely country before March 2019 possibly for a last time, because I am afraid it will be too painfull to have a visa or anything like this after that date.

    Good luck to my British friends.

    1. Chris Kendall Post author

      I share the pessimism of your very sad comment, Frederic – but I hope – I trust – that the UK will still be open for visits from our neighbours on a visa-free basis! Though with the way things are going, who knows?? In any case, remember that the UK is thoroughly split down the middle, and while there are a large number of people who seem determined to hide away from the world there is an equally large number of people who treasure international connections – we hope our friends won’t abandon us! We will need support in the fight to come.

  7. Michael Reynolds

    I do not understand how politicians can advocate a policy without any knowledge of the consequences especially when the economic future of the country is at stake and at such an inopportune time of international uncertainty. The global economy has just emerged from the longest recession since the 1930s and one state threatens hostilities against our ally.
    Those malcontents who champion so called Brexit see a Utopian dream world reminiscent of what may have been the British Empire model. But we do not have an empire and neither do we have the means of international trade on such a scale to substitute for Brexit. We are no longer the leading industrial power and may find it very difficult to realise such Utopian fantasies as Brexit.
    Leaving the EU may be the most self harming act ever undertaken in British economic history since the war against the English colonists in America. Then we lost a third of our trade and it took decades to recover the relationship.
    What does not help is certain sections of the press who for years have been finding fault with Europe and certain politicians who for some reason blame Europe for all our ills. if those who believe in Brexit think that is how you conduct international relations then they should reflect as the Chinese say: those who ride the back of the tiger usually end up inside.
    From the time of Castlereagh England recognised that foreign policy rested on three fundamental principles: the balance of power, the hegemenony of Europe and that one power would not dominate the continent. That is why England interevened in 1914 and in 1939 because those principles aligned with the British interest. The EU has for all the criticism kept the hegemony of Europe and if one day it does give effect to the dreams of Winston Churchill, Harold Nicolson and Duff Cooper then those on the conservative benches who now renounce that policy may have to explain how they undermined the British interest.

    1. Chris Kendall Post author

      Thanks Michael – I think this is a fantastic take, giving some highly relevant historical perspective. I particularly appreciate the parallels with the loss of the American colonies which hadn’t occurred to me, but you’re right to highlight them.

      1. Michael Reynolds

        A pleasure Chris. Just heard the PMs speech in Florence focussing on some shared values, challenges and a common history. Whether it is another renaissance is another question as is just how you set about a partnership agreement. Whether she can rectify the damage already done by her Brexit ministers is another question. I think she will have to make some changes and appoint people who are more qualified to deal with this matter. What we seem to have had is a third eleven who have no regard whatsoever for diplomatic history or international relations and have made this country look very silly. So far it seems pretty amateurish. If the goal is a partnership with the EU then politicians will really have to step up to the challenges and stop the smirking winging criticism of the EU and face reality. As that great Anglo-Irishman Lord Wellington said this will be : “a close run thing.” But it could easily come unstuck without the level of diplomacy, a pre-requisite which has been absent so far.

        1. Chris Kendall Post author

          My take is that she continues to seek to square the circle, she seems to think it is possible to build some kind of consensus that can be accepted by what I would call moderate realists, who understand the risks of a hard break with the EU, and her ERG headbangers, who don’t and who actively advocate such a break. Her calculation (and by ‘her’ I don’t really mean Theresa May herself but the consensus built around her in Number 10) seems to be that the UK is sufficiently important to the EU that, ultimately, the EU will once again reinvent itself to accommodate the needs of the UK outside the EU. This is what I understand from her vision of a special partnership. Unsurprisingly, I think this is delusional and built on a conviction inside the Westminster bubble of the UK’s exceptional qualities. I think the EU will go a long way to smooth the path to Brexit, in its own interests, but not as far as the Westminster bubble expects and believes is its due. Ultimately, to make this work, she has to face down her extremists. Compromise with them is not possible.

          1. Michael Reynolds

            Many thanks Sean. It was after I read Edmund Burke’s speeches and Letters to America that I gave a lecture drawing on Burke’s warnings at the time and compared the loss of the English colonies to Britain’s unilateral renunciation of the EU Treaties and the consequences that might follow. Much of that the economic analysis was gleaned from the excellent studies carried out by Sussex University and concerns raised by constitutional lawyers who consider the constitution of the UK to be in crisis as discussed recently in the Putney Debates.

  8. Michael Reynolds

    Unfortunately not. It was recorded. I will have to see if the college still has a copy.
    I have the slides from the lecture which was on the subject of “Supranational and National Law”; not exactly riveting but it covered some of the problems.


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