5 reasons the UK failed in Brexit talks

Jonathan Powell was Downing Street chief of staff and chief British negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997-2007.

I have spent the last forty years involved in international negotiations of one sort or another, and I have never seen a British government perform worse than they did in the four years of negotiations that concluded with the Christmas Eve Brexit agreement.

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of Brexit, purely in terms of negotiating technique, it is an object lesson in how not to do it. As the bluster and self-congratulation dies down, it is worth standing back and looking at what we can learn from the debacle. 

We have ended up with an agreement which is more or less where the EU started. It is true that there have been a few sops to the U.K. position on the dynamic alignment of state aid and the role of the European Court of Justice. But on every major economic point, even including fisheries, the EU has got its way.

There are five principal reasons why.

First, we massively overestimated the strength of our negotiating position. It is true we are equally sovereign as the EU, but we are not sovereign equals. They are much larger, and we depend on them much more for trade than they do on us. That is why we have had to back down every step of the way, accepting EU insistence that we agree the divorce agreement first, putting a trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K., accepting a single legal treaty and finally Boris Johnson caving in just before the end-of-year deadline. The same disparity of strength exists with the U.S., and we should bear that in mind during trade negotiations with Washington. 

Second, we fired the starting gun before we had worked out our own position, with the result that we spent the first two years negotiating with ourselves while EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s clock was ticking. Triggering Article 50 — the legal mechanism that kicked off a time-limited exit process — before we were ready meant we constantly found ourselves facing a self-inflicted deadline by which we had to concede or face severe economic and political costs. We should have waited until we knew what we wanted and only then pulled the trigger rather than blundering in without knowing our desired end point. This was not the fault of the negotiators but of their political leaders.

Third, we prioritized principles of sovereignty over economic interests and put defensive steps protecting a theoretical concept we don’t actually want to use ahead of practical benefits. Sovereignty is a nebulous concept — as the newly-published assessment by the “Star Chamber” of the European Research Group of pro-Brexit Tories unconsciously demonstrates in distinguishing between practical and theoretical sovereignty. In any international agreement, from the NATO treaty to the Good Friday Agreement, a state limits its sovereignty, but it usually does so in return for practical benefits.

With this agreement with the EU, we have done the opposite. We have defended the theoretical possibility of doing things we don’t actually want to do, like lower our environmental standards or support failing industries, in return for giving up measures that would increase our prosperity. So we have spent the last weeks fighting (and losing) over fishing, which represents 0.1 percent of our economy, while accepting that services, which represents 80 percent of our economy and where we have a competitive advantage, is excluded from the agreement. We have therefore ended up with a free-trade agreement which is worse in substantive terms than many others the EU has recently concluded. And we have certainly not secured “no non-tariff barriers,” as Boris Johnson has claimed.

Fourth, trust is fundamental to any successful negotiation. We willfully destroyed the EU’s trust in our commitment to implement what we had already agreed by threatening to unilaterally renege on the Northern Ireland Protocol. No. 10 reportedly thought they could provoke a crisis and thereby give themselves the whip hand as the EU panicked. Instead the EU kept calmly ploughing on and achieved its objectives while we wasted time on silly tactical games. We were forced to back down before we could sign the FTA, so we made no substantive gain, but the price will be paid in the future as we try to negotiate further agreements with the EU on financial services and justice and home affairs issues in the absence of trust. 

Fifth, and most unforgivably, we never developed a strategic plan for the negotiations. It is a strange thing — you would never enter into a military or political campaign without a strategy — but the government seemed to think it was alright to turn up for these talks and hope things would work out. As a result we were constantly reacting to EU positions throughout and even agreed to negotiate from an EU text rather than a U.K. one. Unsurprisingly, the agreement ended up being mostly what the EU wanted.

It is worth learning from these failures in negotiation strategy because we are embarking on a series of trade negotiations with countries around the world. If we want to do more than simply replicate existing agreements those countries have with the EU, we are going to have to do a lot better.

And if we think the Brexit negotiations with the EU itself are over, we are about to be sadly disappointed. We are at the beginning of what will be decades of permanent negotiation with our much larger and more powerful neighbor. We do not want our government to make the same mistakes again or we will all pay for it.



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