How the UK lost the Brexit battle

By Tom McTague

Illustration by Zach Meyer for POLITICO

Illustration by Zach Meyer for POLITICO


he European Union set the train in motion before the result of the Brexit referendum had even been announced.

It was at 6:22 a.m. on June 24, 2016 — 59 minutes before the official tally was unveiled — that the European Council sent its first “lines to take” to the national governments that make up the EU.

The United Kingdom was leaving the European Union and Brussels was determined to seize control of the process.

In the short five-paragraph document written by Council President Donald Tusk’s chief of staff, Piotr Serafin, and circulated among EU ambassadors, the bloc’s remaining 27 national governments were urged to speak with one voice and to insist that the U.K. leave through the Article 50 process set down in EU law.

This meant settling the divorce first and the future relationship second, once the U.K. had left. “In the future we hope to have the U.K. as a close partner of the EU,” the document read. “First we need to agree the arrangements for the withdrawal.”

“We will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave" — The official Brexit campaign in 2016

This was crucial. It ran counter to declarations by the U.K.’s victorious Vote Leave campaign not to be bound by the formal exit procedure. If the U.K. agreed to the terms of its departure before its future relationship was settled, the Brexit campaigners had argued, it would deprive itself of much of its leverage.

“Taking back control is a careful change, not a sudden stop,” read the official Brexit campaign’s prospectus — endorsed by two of the political leaders of the campaign, then Justice Secretary Michael Gove and the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson. “We will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave.”

It would be the first of many battles the EU declared, and the first of many it would win, as it stuck to the strategies it laid out in the earliest days of the Brexit process.

Over the 33 months since the referendum, British officials would stage a series of unsuccessful stands, trying to dislodge the EU from its chosen course before grudgingly — and often bitterly — acquiescing amid howls of pain in Westminster.

The aftermath of Britain’s 52-48 referendum has divided the country even further | Leon Neal/Getty Images

British envoys — including Prime Minister Theresa May — would reach out to national leaders in an attempt to overhaul Brussels’ legalistic approach with a diplomatic discussion about mutual interests, flexibility and “imaginative solutions.” They would meet with no success.

An attempt to strike side deals on citizens’ rights, an effort to begin talks on the future relationship before the divorce was settled, a go at starting bilateral discussions with Dublin over the contentious issue of the Irish border — none of these would shift the direction of the talks set forth by the EU in the earliest days.

POLITICO has spoken to dozens of leading officials, diplomats and politicians in Dublin, Paris, Berlin, Belfast, London and Brussels — including in No. 10 Downing Street and chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier’s team in the European Commission —  about the nearly three years of negotiations.

The story that emerges is of a process in which the EU moved inexorably forward as Westminster collapsed into political infighting, indecision and instability.

The only concession the EU would make regarding its core principles over the course of the talks was at the request of one of its members, the Republic of Ireland — and to the disadvantage of the U.K. The rules of the single market could be bent, but only for Northern Ireland — and only to help the Republic’s unique problem on the border. For the U.K., there would be no special deals. In the words of the EU’s negotiators, there would be “no cherry-picking.”

As Westminster descends into increasing political turmoil, it has become highly uncertain whether British Prime Minister Theresa May will be able to secure parliament’s approval for the Brexit deal she struck with the EU in November.

Twenty-nine members of the government have resigned over Brexit since June last year, and party discipline has all but disappeared in both May’s Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party. The prime minister has suffered a succession of defeats, including the largest in parliamentary history, when lawmakers rejected her deal first in January and then again in March. She even promised to step down once Britain’s divorce from the European Union is seen through, although she gave no date for doing so.

May’s opponents blame the current crisis on her decision to pursue one interpretation of Brexit.

With Brexit day postponed, MPs have voted to take control of the parliamentary timetable to chart a new Brexit course. Just when and how — and even if — the U.K. will leave the EU has never been less clear.

Even if the prime minister does eventually force her deal through parliament with grudging Euroskeptic support, Brexit is far from over. Despite months of negotiations, many of the key questions raised by the Brexit vote remain unanswered. Such is the opposition in Westminster to the terms on offer, that leading figures on both sides of the talks fear that Brexit, far from settling the U.K.’s place in Europe, will continue to poison British politics for years to come, with knock-on effects for Ireland and the EU.

May’s opponents blame the current crisis on her decision to pursue one interpretation of Brexit, with little real attempt to reach out to MPs on the opposite benches of a hung parliament. But, as this story reveals, many of the unstoppable forces that led to this moment were set in motion long before the prime minister took office.

United front

he European Council’s “lines to take” were the product of months of planning. Ahead of the Brexit referendum, Tusk had spoken to every EU leader urging a united front regardless of the result. Draft political responses had been drawn up, ready to go — for either eventuality: Leave or Remain.

As it became clear what direction the U.K. had elected to take, the document was circulated among EU ambassadors by the European Council — complete with a typo in the subject line: “PEC messqges.”

Across Brussels’ gray Rue de la Loi in the Commission’s Berlaymont building, President Jean-Claude Juncker and his then chief of staff, Martin Selmayr, had worked up an even tighter, technical response that would follow shortly after as a joint statement from the heads of the four EU institutions.

In days following the referendum, the EU ratcheted up its position.

The first turn of the screw came at 11:57 a.m. on June 24, 2016, less than five hours after the result was declared, in the joint statement drawn up by Juncker and Selmayr.

General Secretary of the European Commission Martin Selmayr, behind Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Strasbourg | Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

Released in the names of Tusk, Juncker, then European Parliament President Martin Schulz and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, then head of the Council of the EU’s rotating presidency representing national governments, the EU ruled out any talks with Britain before it triggered Article 50, as required by the EU treaties.

“We have rules to deal with this in an orderly way,” the statement read. “Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union sets out the procedure to be followed if a Member State decides to leave the European Union. We stand ready to launch negotiations swiftly.”

The leaders also urged London to trigger Article 50 “as soon as possible” and declared that the future relationship between the two sides would only be determined after the U.K. had left. They also made clear there would be costs for walking away.

The EU’s thick yellow and blue lines were set — and formalized by EU ambassadors on Sunday, June 26.

Four days later, EU leaders met in Brussels to formalize their position. The summit — first at 28 with a chastened British Prime Minister David Cameron and then at 27 a day later — would set the tone for the next two years and 10 months.

“The British government should have offered something very, very quickly" — High-ranking European official

On Brexit, EU leaders rowed in behind the heads of the institutions in Brussels, barely changing the opening positions drawn up by the Council and Commission. Only one major change was introduced — a hardening of the EU’s position.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded that a specific line on the indivisibility of the four freedoms — the movement of goods, services, capital and people — be included in the final communiqué.

Cameron had told his fellow leaders at the summit that immigration had been a driving factor in the Britain’s decision to leave, but he hoped the U.K. would stay close to the single market.

The EU’s conclusions, ruling out the possibility of carving out the free movement of people from the rest of the single market, looked like a rebuff.

National interest

ad London been prepared for Brexit on June 24, 2016, the negotiations might have played out differently.

“The British government should have offered something very, very quickly,” said one high-ranking official of a large EU country. “If the U.K. had said: ‘Here’s the plan,’ we might have accepted it.”

“The British strength was being one member state, being able to define its national interest quickly and making its move quickly,” the official said. “It did not do that.”

Instead, in the aftermath of the referendum, Cameron resigned as prime minister; Labour MPs attempted to oust their party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn; Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, vowed to hold a second independence referendum; and Martin McGuinness, then deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, called for a vote on whether the British territory should leave the U.K. and become part of the Republic of Ireland.

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron | Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

The seeds of the crisis Britain faced today were planted by Cameron, said Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan. “He called the referendum too early, ran a crappy campaign and then walked out, leaving a vacuum.”

“It is a crisis caused by bad decisions on top of bad decisions, turning a short-term gambit into a long-term catastrophe,” he added. “You can trace the whole thing back to the start. The crash was always coming.”

On the morning after the referendum, Cameron announced he would be standing down to allow a new prime minister to prepare for the negotiation with the EU. “Above all,” he said “this will require strong, determined and committed leadership.”

On July 11, 2016, the Conservative Party chose Theresa May to replace him.

By selecting May — a former home secretary known for her hard line on immigration — the Tory Party put in place a prime minister whose personal definition of Brexit would put her in conflict with the goals set out by the EU.

“We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration all over again" — Theresa May in 2016

May began her premiership with a simple — if enigmatic — definition of leaving the EU: “Brexit means Brexit.” By her first Tory Party conference as prime minister in October 2016, she had clarified her position. Brexit meant controlling immigration from the EU, shrugging off the jurisdiction of EU courts and regaining the ability to strike independent trade deals.

“We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration all over again,” she said, to the ovation of Tory members.  “And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. That’s not going to happen. We are leaving to become, once more, a fully sovereign and independent country.”

She would spell out in a later speech at Lancaster House in January 2017 that that also meant leaving the single market and the customs union.

If the EU didn’t accept her red lines, “no deal was better than a bad deal.”

But even as May staked out her position, she was also making a commitment that would define the rest of the negotiations.

Ivan Rogers, the U.K.’s former ambassador in Brussels, has been repeatedly critical of London’s negotiating strategy | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

In the same speech, on the first day of the Tory Party conference, May reiterated a promise she had made in a newspaper interview published that morning: The U.K. would trigger Article 50 before the end of March 2017.

“That duly forfeited at a stroke any leverage over how that process would run,” said Ivan Rogers, former U.K. ambassador to the EU, in a lecture at Liverpool University in December 2018. “And it gave to the 27, who had, by the morning of June 24th, already set out their ‘no negotiation without notification’ position, the first couple of goals of the match in the opening five minutes.”

Jonathan Faull, a British former director general at the European Commission, who led a task force on the strategic dilemmas posed by the U.K.’s EU referendum, agreed: “It was not entirely inevitable … but much of what followed should have been obvious from the way Article 50 is written and how we know the EU works.”

For Matthew Elliott, the Vote Leave campaign’s chief executive, May’s decision to trigger Article 50 was a defining moment. “Vote Leave always had a plan — the key plank of which was not to trigger Article 50 pre-emptively, but to instead use the time after the referendum to prepare and plan,” he said. “It is deeply regrettable that the advice wasn’t heeded among officials.”

May had planted her flag. The question was how the EU would react.

Ireland plans

russels was not the only European capital where politicians and civil servants had been preparing for Brexit.

One adviser on European affairs to a prominent EU27 leader said Dublin had begun lobbying other EU countries in the months before the referendum to ensure Ireland was protected in the event of decision by the U.K. to leave.

“If there is one player which made Ireland go to the top of the agenda, it was Ireland,” the adviser said.

The Irish were pushing on an open door. EU members were always going to give priority to the vital interests of a member state over those of a country that had decided to turn its back on the Union — just as they had sided with Cyprus over the Turkish Cypriots, despite Brussels’ support for a peace deal for the divided island that the Turkish Cypriots had accepted and the Greek Cypriots voted to reject.

That Ireland felt the need to reiterate its commitment is illustrative of how the country’s leaders saw Brexit as an existential threat.

Northern Irish peer Paul Bew, one of the chief architects of the Good Friday Agreement, said Dublin’s preparation was typical of the Irish in their long history of negotiations with Britain. “They are on top of the detail, and we [the British] are incurious. The people at the top of the U.K. government are also paralyzed by imperial guilt.”

The contrast with London was stark. While Cameron refused to allow officials to prepare for a Leave vote — barring officials from putting anything on paper — Ireland had produced a 130-page Contingency Plan with an hour-by-hour checklist.

On the morning the referendum result was announced, then Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny made a statement intended to reassure the markets and Irish citizens. Its central thrust was blunt: Ireland would remain a committed member of the EU. The point was so important he repeated it.

Former Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny | Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

“Ireland will, of course, remain a member of the European Union,” Kenny declared. “That is profoundly in our national interest.” His government, he said, had “prepared to the greatest extent possible for this eventuality.”

That Ireland, which joined the bloc along with the U.K. in 1973, felt the need to reiterate its commitment is illustrative of how the country’s leaders saw Brexit as an existential threat.

Not only do the two countries share a lengthy and complex colonial history, they remain uniquely intertwined. The two countries share a common travel area — a mini Schengen — a language, and of course, a common land border, one with a violent history quieted by a delicate peace agreement that Brexit threatened to unravel.

Hard border

he problem posed by the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was evident long before the U.K. voted to leave.

On June 9, 2016, two weeks before the referendum, former U.K. Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair visited Northern Ireland to warn that the future of the union was “on the ballot paper” and that a Leave vote risked the return of border controls with the Republic of Ireland.

The Republic of Ireland and the U.K. had agreed a common travel area in the 1920s and joined the EU together in 1973. There had never been a moment when one country was in the EU and the other not.

And yet, for all its preparations, Dublin had not come up with a solution.

Former U.K. prime ministers, John Major, left, and Tony Blair traveled to Northern Ireland shortly before the Brexit vote to deliver a warning about the future of the union | Pool photo by Jeff J Mitchell/AFP via Getty Images

In Cameron’s statement to the House of Commons on June 27 he said the British and Irish governments would start discussion that week to “work through the challenges relating to the common border area.”

In early scoping exercises, according to “Brexit & Ireland,” by Tony Connelly, Europe editor at the Irish broadcaster RTÉ, Dublin had proposed a U.K.-Ireland bilateral trade agreement for agriculture to avoid the return of a hard border.

This had been rejected out of hand by the EU as illegal.

The Anglo-Irish talks went on for months. Even as May was setting out her “red lines” at the Tory Party conference, Irish and British civil servants were meeting in the Foreign Office in London for a two-day summit, with Brexit on the agenda.

"There was always a worry that the Irish were the Brits’ Trojan Horse" — Senior EU official

These bilateral talks — taking place before the Brexit negotiations had officially started — soon caught the attention of Brussels, where officials were becoming concerned.

“From the autumn onwards, they had their diplomacy on the ground, taking everyone through the details of the Good Friday Agreement,” said one senior EU official intimately involved in the negotiations. “But there was always a worry that the Irish were the Brits’ Trojan Horse.”

A few days after May’s speech at the party conference, Michel Barnier, the Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, arrived in Dublin. The message was clear: Stop negotiating with the British.

From then on, it would be Brussels that took on responsibility for the Irish border.

United front

he appointment of Barnier, a tall, suave former French minister and two-time European commissioner, is credited as one of the primary reasons the EU was able to maintain a united front in the face of Brexit.

“As soon as we had found our ‘face,’ it was a second-rate problem,” explained one Europe adviser to a major EU27 leader. “This is the main reason the U.K. was not seen as a threat.”

A second senior official, a sherpa for an influential EU leader, added: “Brexit is a lose-lose game. We want to focus on the future of the Union and let Barnier settle the accounts of the past.”

That it would be Barnier who would be tasked with the talks was not obvious the morning after the referendum. In the aftermath of the vote, control of the negotiations was the subject of a turf war between the EU’s major institutions. Should it be the Council leading the talks — or the Commission?

“[Barnier is] a politician who is reassuring for France, but is identifiable in Germany" — Europe adviser in major EU government

In the end it wasn’t much of competition. The Council of the EU — the institution representing national governments — was the first out of the gate, with the appointment of the little-known but well-liked Belgian civil servant Didier Seeuws to coordinate its response. Juncker and Selmayr then laid their trump card: Barnier.

“The decision to appoint Barnier and to do so quickly was a big decision,” said the Europe adviser to a major EU27 leader. “This was a decision taken by Juncker. I don’t think he saw all the consequences, but it was a very good decision. Seeuws was a coordinator, not a leader. We needed a political guy. That was clever.”

A Frenchman and a member of Merkel’s center-right European People’s Party, Barnier had the endorsement of the German chancellor and the French president. He also knew the U.K. and the City of London well, having been in charge of EU financial regulation in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

“He’s a politician who is reassuring for France, but is identifiable in Germany,” the Europe adviser explained. “He’s a Brussels man, but from a national capital.”

Most important, he had enough stature to allow national leaders to step back from the process.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, pressed home the bloc’s advantage at every turn | Robert Ghement/EPA

No matter how hard May and her officials tried to turn the Brexit talks into a diplomatic discussion, a negotiation among equals, Barnier would ensure it remained an institutional process — between the U.K. and the much larger EU.

Brexit would be — in the words of Pascal Lamy, a former head of the World Trade Organization — not a negotiation, but an “amputation.”

“The Brits always want to make it a political discussion, but it’s just the reverse of an accession negotiation,” explained one EU aide. “It’s not a negotiation. We unwind EU law in your domestic system.”

Even ardent Brexiteers in the U.K. would come to share this view. In March 2019, former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith would complain bitterly about the way the talks had gone. “The negotiations up to now have been less a kind of negotiation and more of a process which allowed the European Union to get their way,” he said.

France’s diplomatic establishment schools its officials in the idea of a “rapport de force” — the balance of power in any relationship. As long as the negotiations remained between Brussels and London, there would be no question who had the upper hand.

“The EU, while strategically myopic, is formidably good at process against negotiating opponents" — Ivan Rogers, former British ambassador to the EU

And that was maintained by controlling the process. There would be no negotiation without notification, no future relationship without the divorce agreement, and no divorce agreement if the money, citizens’ rights and the problem of the Irish border weren’t sorted out first.

“The EU, while strategically myopic, is formidably good at process against negotiating opponents,” said Rogers. “No one was paying much attention to how the EU was patiently constructing the process designed to maximize its leverage.”

At every turn, Barnier pressed home his advantage, and the U.K. — with little alternative — bowed to the inevitable.

“We don’t need to create rapport de force. It was there on the day it [Brexit] was triggered,” was how one French official put it.

Upper hand

owhere was the imbalance of power more important than on the Irish border.

By February, 2017 — before Britain had even triggered Article 50 — Brussels had taken ownership of the problem and come up with the beginnings of a solution.

In a confidential Brexit note, titled “Brexit and the Border between Ireland the U.K.,” the Commission proposed a soft land border for goods — and no border controls for agriculture and food. In effect, the island of Ireland would be treated as unified when it came to food and farming. Northern Ireland would be subject to EU law even after it had left.

The kicker: This meant there would have to be border controls within the U.K. — between Britain and Northern Ireland.

“Ireland asked for something,” one European Commission official said. “But so did the EU: single market integrity in Northern Ireland.”

The Irish border has proved an intractable problem for Britain throughout talks with the EU | Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

According to Connelly’s “Brexit & Ireland,” the memo “acknowledged the sensitivity of this idea,” because of the fury it would cause among unionists in Northern Ireland. “As the Commission’s Irish interlocutors have indicated,” the note stated, “insisting on such a solution could harm the peace process.”

But it was the only way under EU law, the Commission concluded, given the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU’s customs union.

The discussion about the border was part of the EU’s work on its Brexit negotiating “bible,” in preparation for the U.K.’s official declaration of departure. It was published, after extensive consultation with national governments, at the April leaders’ summit shortly after Theresa May triggered Article 50 on March 29, 2017.

Like a balloon slowly expanded from its original form, the negotiating guidelines were simply a blown-up version of the statements published by the EU in the hours after the result was announced. As the talks dragged on, the balloon continued to expand but never substantially changed shape.

There must be a “balance of rights and obligations” the agreement declared. “The integrity of the single market must be preserved, which means the four freedoms are indivisible and excludes any cherry-picking,” it read.

“Where we are now has been obvious for a long time" — Senior official at No. 10 Downing Street

Crucially, it also declared there would be a “phased approach” to the negotiations. Only after the divorce had been settled could work on the future relationship begin.

It was exactly what Vote Leave had feared. Britain would have to agree to settle its bills and agree to the EU’s solution to the Irish border before talks could start on what kind of relationship would come next. This would deprive the U.K. of much of its leverage in the discussion about the future relationship.

“Where we are now has been obvious for a long time,” said a senior member of Theresa May’s Downing Street operation. “By setting up the sequencing like they did, and putting Northern Ireland in the first phase, this was always going to happen. It was their choice, it doesn’t say anywhere in Article 50 that it had to be like this.”

Irish wins

hen the EU’s negotiating “bible” was published in April 2017, Brussels was still publicly toying with “creative solutions” for the Irish border. It also restricted its commitment to the “aim” of no hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Yet the frenzied Irish diplomacy had already resulted in three substantial achievements.

First, Enda Kenny visited the U.K. prime minister in July 2016, the month that May took office, and won a public assurance that there would be no return to the borders of the past.

Second, the border problem had been put explicitly on Brussels’ agenda — a top-ticket divorce item that needed to be resolved before the U.K. could depart.

Third, Dublin had persuaded the EU as early as April 2017 to confirm that should Northern Ireland ever reunify with the Republic it would automatically become a member of the EU.

"We just could not believe the British had accepted the text" — Senior EU official

The British were furious, but the EU had proved it had Ireland’s back.

In November 2017, after the U.K. had failed to propose a solution to the Irish border, the Commission unveiled its proposal: a “backstop” to ensure that whatever happened in the future, the border would remain open.

Barnier’s team had concluded that the only way to protect the EU single market while avoiding a hard border in Ireland was for the U.K. to ensure that there would be “no regulatory divergence” between Northern Ireland and the rules of the single market and customs union.

For May, already struggling politically, the implications were deadly. Doing so would require one of two painful compromises, each of them anathema to political factions supporting her government.

The entirety of the U.K. would have to abide by EU rules (something hard-line Brexiteers would never accept), or Northern Ireland would be subject to different laws to the rest of the country (a measure to which the Northern Irish unionists whose votes she depended on were sure to object).

Bending the rules

he reaction in London was apoplectic. The Commission had proposed bending the rules of the single market to apply bits of EU law to Northern Ireland, but not the rest of the U.K.

The proposal was designed to answer the goals laid out by Brussels and Dublin: to protect the integrity of the single market and maintain an open border. It ensured the price for Brexit would be paid by the British and not the Irish who otherwise faced the “ghastly choice,” in the words of one high-ranking EU official, of erecting border controls with Northern Ireland or diluting its membership of the single market and customs union.

Olly Robbins, Theresa May’s chief negotiator, travelled to Brussels to complain.

“Among our many arguments was a key democratic deficit point,” said one U.K. official who was in the room with Robbins. “You will leave Northern Ireland with no say in the laws governing it. That is tyranny and will be unsustainable.”

Olly Robbins, a top U.K. negotiator on Brexit, has been a figure of vitriol for the more ardent British Brexiteers | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

But the EU were immovable — and eventually, in December 2017, the British agreed to the proposal.

In Dublin they could not believe the U.K. had agreed, one senior EU27 official said. “I remember being in a taxi that Sunday night. We just could not believe the British had accepted the text. We knew it would not be acceptable to the unionists. The truth is, Brexit was always going to poison the atmosphere and it has.”

The Irish backstop would remain the key sticking point for the rest of the negotiations, even after May convinced the EU to widen its scope to ensure the whole of the U.K. remained in the customs union.

Ultimately, it caused May’s deal to be rejected in parliament in January 2019 — the largest government defeat ever. That raised the prospect of the U.K. crashing out without a deal, plummeting Northern Irish politics further into crisis.

Former Brexit Secretary David Davis | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

“There were a number of missteps, but the two most serious were on the sequencing and the language on the backstop,” said former Brexit Secretary David Davis. “By giving way on the sequencing right at the start we broke the linkage with the future relationship that was vital. From December 2017 onward [after the backstop was agreed] it went from a standard, fairly tough negotiation to a struggle to escape from the positions [May] fell into.”

One senior Downing Street official said the U.K. had warned the EU about the risks the backstop posed domestically, but felt it had no choice but to agree. “It didn’t feel like we had much choice, it felt like it would all fall apart quite quickly if we didn’t. But that sowed the seeds for where we are now.”

Asked directly whether the EU knew what it was getting itself into, one senior official close to Barnier said: “Oh, we know what we’re getting ourselves into. We just have no choice.”

Salzburg reality check

or the U.K., the reality of its position finally came crashing down in September 2018, at special EU summit in the Austrian town of Salzburg.

On, Wednesday September 19, May’s most senior advisers were relaxing on a rooftop hotel bar. The mood was light. Hopes were high. May was due to address EU leaders the following day and had one-to-one meetings lined up with key leaders Donald Tusk and Ireland’s Leo Varadkar.

By lunchtime the next day, the prime minister — and British diplomacy — would be publicly humiliated, her best-laid plan for Brexit rejected.

May had started her tenure riding high in the polls — the dominant, domineering figure in British politics. Parliament was rarely consulted; only because of a court order did the prime minister seek the chamber’s consent before triggering Article 50.

Theresa May, right, was humiliated by EU top brass in Salzburg in September 2018 | Barbara Gindt/AFP via Getty Images

It all went wrong for May after she called a snap election in the hope of securing the strong majority she would need to push through whatever deal she struck with Brussels. The plan backfired. In a stunning rebuke, voters stripped the Conservative Party of its majority.

As the leader of the largest party, May remained prime minister, but she became reliant on the votes of the conservative Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party, a fiercely pro-union party that had opposed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the island.

Weakened, May became unable to soften her red lines — or compromise on the Irish border — without losing the support of the hard-line Brexiteers in her party or the Northern Irish unionists. Her red lines kept her in power, but they made it nearly impossible for her to strike a deal with the EU.

“She drew bloody red lines which she has consistently tried to blur afterwards,” one of the EU’s most senior Brexit officials told POLITICO shortly after the deal had been agreed. “It wasted a lot of time because it made every single step very painful.”

Forced retreat

s the negotiations dragged on, Britain was repeatedly forced to retreat. May would make a stand, only to be forced to back down as the EU pressed on relentlessly.

Efforts to whittle down Britain’s financial accounts with the EU were rejected, until May finally agreed to honor them in full. Rows over the role of the European Court of Justice protecting EU citizens’ rights dragged on. British pride was badly piqued when the EU made clear the U.K. would not remain full partners in EU programs it had once played a leading role in, such as Galileo, European defense or security. The law was the law, and Britain would be a third country.

British concessions were large and small. Staff at the U.K. parliamentary representation in Brussels — UKREP — were left exasperated after each visit from David Davis, May’s first Brexit secretary.

On each occasion, Davis demanded that they prepare to host the joint press conference with him and Barnier on British soil in the city. But every time, despite the staff going to great lengths to ensure the U.K. could put on a press conference at the last minute if necessary, Davis always, eventually, relented to take questions in the European Commission.

The first significant blurring of Theresa May’s red lines came in December 2017, with her acceptance of the backstop.

“It was every bloody time,” said one British official. “Every time. And every time we ended up at the Commission.”

There were other small indignities. Before the negotiations started there had been, in London at least, talk of alternating the negotiations between the British capital and Brussels. By the end, no technical talks had taken place in London.

Officials from both sides often met in meeting room 201 of the European Commission’s “Charlemagne zone” on floor five of the Berlaymont building, one EU official said. On the side of the wall outside the room sits a picture of Conwy Castle in Wales, a building renovated using EU structural funds — a neat statement of the EU’s position on Brexit.


he first significant blurring of Theresa May’s red lines came in December 2017, with her acceptance of the backstop.

Then came May’s Chequers proposal, in July 2018. For May, the proposal — named after the prime minister’s country retreat — was a huge climbdown. It envisioned the whole of the U.K remaining, to all intents and purposes, in the EU’s single market for goods.

It would allow the U.K. to avoid a border being erected — on the island of Ireland or in the Irish Sea. But it was politically costly. May’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, and her Brexit secretary, David Davis, both resigned in protest, along with six other junior members of the government.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May hamstrung herself, by laying out red lines prior to triggering the Article 50 process | Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

It was this proposal that May had brought to Salzburg, in an attempt to break the deadlock by appealing directly to EU leaders.

Doing so was a gamble — and an enormous miscalculation. At the leaders’ summit, Donald Tusk quickly dismissed any chance it would be accepted. The Chequers proposal was “not acceptable” he said. “Especially on the economic side of it.”

French President Emmanuel Macron broke with diplomatic niceties, attacking British Brexiteers as “liars” and dismissing May’s proposal as a “brave step” that remained “not acceptable.”

“The Chequers plan cannot be take it or leave it,” he added.

“The big loss is that they have not settled the question for the future" — Senior official close to Michel Barnier

In Westminster, the episode became known known as the “disaster of Salzburg,” epitomizing months of failure. “Salzburg was the moment British diplomacy came crashing down,” said one U.K. diplomat.

“It was a big misunderstanding, a big mistake,” agreed the senior adviser to an EU leader intimately involved in the negotiations.

Westminster had underestimated the EU’s determination to ensure the Brexit talks remained a bureaucratic process — and not be sucked into political horse-trading with the U.K. “It misread the legal nature of the EU,” one senior French official said. “This is what makes it strong.”

The British “seemed to think this was the moment it would be taken out of Barnier’s hands to become a political negotiation,” the adviser continued. “That was the last time the U.K. thought it could all be sorted out politically.”

MPs take control

 feel like, when people look back at this, they’ll realize this was the real beginning of the end,” texted one member of May’s inner circle. It was 10:20 p.m. on March 25, 2019, and MPs had just voted to begin the process of “indicative votes” on alternative Brexit plans.

With less than three weeks until Brexit day — already kicked down the road into April after parliament had twice voted down the deal May struck with the EU in November — the prime minister had formally lost control.

A third vote on her deal had been pulled because she just did not have the numbers.

For many around May, that a crash would come had been obvious for months. As far back as July 2018, senior figures inside No. 10 Downing Street had warned that her deal, as it was shaping up, was unsustainable. There was just no way a majority in parliament could be assembled for the Brexit the EU was offering.

In truth, the trains had been set in motion far earlier — the collision was the culmination of decisions taken by both sides within the hours, weeks and months that followed the referendum. The EU’s determination not to cut London a special deal; Cameron’s decision to walk away; May’s sweeping promise not to raise a border in Ireland, while at the same time drawing incompatible red lines — something had to give, and it would not be Brussels.

An official takes down a Union Jack at the European Commission in Brussels | Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

The result, some of the most senior figures in Brussels and London admit, is an outcome in which the  negotiations will have fallen short of their limited ambitions — even if a deal is eventually forced through a recalcitrant House of Commons in the coming days or weeks.

The contentious Irish backstop — the root cause of the crisis — has become so toxic for the largest party in Northern Ireland, the DUP, that it risks permanently undermining power-sharing until it is removed and replaced.

Throughout the negotiations, the divisions in Northern Ireland have deepened, and the peace process has been damaged — as the Commission predicted in February 2017.

Most important, few of the major questions created by Britain’s decision to leave the EU have been answered. “The big loss is that they have not settled the question for the future,” one senior official close to Barnier admitted.

Should the EU have resisted the temptation to press home its overwhelming advantage? Should it have allowed the U.K. some cherry-picking? Should it have made Dublin share some of the costs of Brexit by imposing a border with Northern Ireland instead of the backstop?

Many in the U.K. might think so, but few in Brussels, Dublin or any other European capital would agree. “History will judge,” said the senior official.

Paul Taylor and David Herszenhorn contributed reporting.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the institution that appointed Didier Seeuws as Brexit coordinator.

An extension would require elections to the EP. Those elections would automatically turn into something akin to a put-it-to-the-people-vote, something the Brexiteers cannot/will not allow.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 7:30 AM CET

An excellent dissection of the inexorable and almost entirely predictable consequences of a very small number of decisions and judgements on either side baked into the Brexit process early on. Where there has on either side been very limited room for manoeuvre the EU has, so far, both chosen correctly and maintained unity of purpose- the UK has played a bad hand poorly in doing the opposite. The final judgement by the EU yet to play out- that its position will not end with the UK self-ejecting with ‘no deal’- appears also to be correct. Unless this pans out otherwise, the answer to the rhetorical questions in the penultimate paragraph is, from an EU perspective, very evidently ‘no’ in each case. And yes, this is from that perspective a great achievement for the EU, whose task realpolitik limits to protecting its own interests.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 7:37 AM CET

@Mike “Are you saying that the MAFF includes a No Deal?”

Yes and no – like most things in the EU 🙂

I’m saying that the lack of the UK’s contributions to EU’s coffers has been sliced and diced so as to fit into the usual frame of the cutthroat infighting which has always been part of the multi-annual budget negotiations.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 7:50 AM CET

OK, we can appreciate that the Axel Springer press has set in stone the Official EU History. Rather like the Soviet Union’s incredible narratives of tractor production, this version looks suspect to say the least. There are 3 big flaws in this narrative.

1) The UK, not the EU, chose Brexit. As Brexit runs 100% against what the EU represents and wants, how can it be considered a ‘defeat’ for the UK and, by implication, a ‘victory’ for the EU?

2) The December 2017 Joint Report was NOT as it is being represented here. It was in fact a gigantic fudge in which the EU recognsed that Northern Ireland along with the rest of the UK was leaving the EU, including the Single Market and Customs Union, and that there could be no new barriers between NI and GB (Paragraph 50). It also pledged to safeguard the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which the EU later discovered to its horror meant safeguarding the principle of ‘consent’ in Northern Ireland and NI’s position in the UK. In return the UK pledged to recognise ROI/EU regulations in ‘those areas that support North-South cooperation’, which was agriculture, healthcare and energy (and nothing else).

3) This narrative pretends that the Republic of Ireland was in the driving seat of Brexit strategy and has benefited from EU ‘solidarity’. Alas the very opposite is true. The EU used ROI as its human shield in order to get the UK to reverse Brexit or commit to vassalage (via the ‘backstop’ trick). It could have been so brilliant, only it wasn’t. It hasn’t worked and the Republic of Ireland, not the EU26, will pay a disastrous economic price for the EU’s failure. The Republic of Ireland’s membership of the EU is only sustainable with a trade deal with the UK, and this is the one thing that the EU has refused to discuss because of its own internal contradictions.

Maybe Brexit will open up a Perestroika process inside the EU, but I doubt it. I think we will discover that not a single EU official resigns over their failure and the blame for the economic disruption will always be someone else’s (Perfidious Albion, the Irish tax cheats, global finance, Trump, ‘populism’), etc.).

Posted on 3/28/19 | 8:06 AM CET

@Stevie London
“If the commission was clever it would have negotiated a deal that could be closed.”

There can be no cherry-picking. That was the EU position from the start and it was a good decision for the EU. If one member state got to pick the rules that it wanted to follow it would have been the end of the EU. But without cherry-picking there was never going to be a deal that UK would have accepted willingly. So the result was known from the beginning. EU had a clear position right from the start while UK was still recovering from the Brexit vote.

Exit from the EU should never be an easy process. Same should go for entering the EU. A lot of problems that EU has right now stem from expanding too fast and accepting member states before they were completely ready to enter the Union.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 8:27 AM CET

With a growth in Eurosceptic parties across the EU, the loss of its second largest economy and financial contributor, the loss of 25% of its defence assets and its most connected intelligence agencies, and 60% disapproval among EU citizens at the way the EU has conducted negotiations it is bizarre to consider Brexit a “victory” for the EU.

I look forward to a similarly titled article: “How the EU lost the Brexit war”.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 8:42 AM CET

@ Toni N

Your comment reveals a major psychological flaw in the EU decision-making process. The EU saw the UK as trying to ‘cherry-pick’ its EU membership, in the same way that it had ‘cherry-picked’ not joining the Euro (or rather refused to pick that particular cherry). The EU saw ‘cherry-picking’ for two reasons: weary knowledge of UK behaviour inside the EU and to safeguard against other dissidents (especially in Italy).

But that was the major misconception. The UK decided to LEAVE the EU, not renegotiate its membership (only 15% of votes in the 2017 General Election went to parties keeping open the option of reversing Brexit). Thus the whole debate in the UK was about what to replace EU membership with (WTO, FTA, EEA, etc.), whereas the whole psychology in the EU was about disciplining a wayward member state.

So we’ll end up with a WTO Brexit. No doubt that will still be ‘cherry-picking’ as far as the EU is concerned …

Posted on 3/28/19 | 8:44 AM CET

‘…he felt Anglosaxons in general felt hostility towards the EU and wanted to see it break up and fall apart. ‘

I know of no one (except a few at the extreme ends) who had any desire to see the EU break up.

However, having seen the inner workings of the EU and the way it behaves, many people have come to realise the EU intended to punish Britain, send out a message to other members not to step out of line and to ensure the UK was not a competitor in future.

The latest opinion polls realise that. So what has changed is that now many people do want to see the bloc broken up and a more moderate unit put in its place.

The unelected elite who have been feeding at the golden trough with the compliance of the people have been found out.

The tectonic plates are shifting as parts of the EU takes a Eurosceptic direction which will set it against the unelected bureaucrats that have taken root and the leaders who have never bothered to ask the people if they are heading in the direction they want.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 8:45 AM CET

I think one other thing missing from this account is that the UK remain establishment and elite never had any attention of leaving and manipulated things accordingly, the first being the insertion of a remain PM who was prepared to lie and go behind the backs of her ministers to achieve the goal.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 8:51 AM CET

Att Comment

Dear Politico

As can be proven through your Files I said the EU should receive 3 Months Notice not a day Extra

And they should be told to Shove Article 50 you know where
Playing by the Rules of Article 50 placed all the Power of Negotiations in the hands of Brussells

But what Britain had was a lot of People who had respect for themselves
With most Politicians in Westminister who one couldn’t trust to but a Lock on Tricycle

Plus a PM Remainer who wouldn’t know how to Direct water Running down a Shute

As the DOPES in Westminister would say

We are where we Are

Whoever came up with that Stupid Quote should have their Feet placed in Concrete Permanently

Anyway it’s Hard Brexit now no matter what way you look at it
Britain is finished with Brussells there will never be Reconciliation not with Britain from inside the EU

People have begun to realise what a Scam this whole Brussells Setup is and will carry on to be

The only benefit of the EU is to the likes of what MEP Olaf Henkel called the Minnows who will ALWAYS need to be Propped UP

But that suits Germany they can loan them the Money to Buy there Products


You don’t agree that’s your Business

You couldn’t make it UP

Cheers for Brexit Allways

Donal O’Brien

Posted on 3/28/19 | 9:11 AM CET

@A Lauridsen

Thanks for the platitude.

Always nice to observe how patronizing Eurocrats change their attitude as soon as they are asked for clarification.

From your posts I conclude you do Administration for a living?

Posted on 3/28/19 | 9:13 AM CET

An excellent summary. Ivor Rogers has repeatedly highlighted how a lack of understanding of EU institutions among UK politicians led to a lot of unicorns. Of course all of the Leave lies helped to create unrealistic expectations, which May doubled down on with her contradictory red lines. The lack of expectation management in the UK meant that the final deal was a shock. This was par for the course with May never consulting with Scotland, Wales, or other parties to build a consensus. Instead she acted as if the 2017 election had left her with a huge super-majority.
The biggest UK miscalculation was thinking of the negotiation as a process like agreeing the Maastricht treaty, essentially a political negotiation, instead of thinking of it as an accession negotiation, where the EU only makes minor concessions.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 10:03 AM CET

For anyone with basic understanding of the EU law, the British approach has been puzzling. It appears that even high ranking and educated persons have honestly believed that things fundamentally legal can be turned into a political question.

No diplomat or governmental body anywhere has competency to negotiate beyond its constitutional limits. The indivisibility of the four freedoms as well as the customs union belonging to the exclusive competence of the Union are fundamental elements of the EU constitution.

To assume that the aforesaid issues are open to negotiation is utterly misinformed. No one in Britain would imagine Theresa May negotiating about the Queen’s role in governing the UK.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 10:10 AM CET

@Steuersklav Erei

I think that there was a lot of hope for cherry-picking on the UK part. At least in the beginning. As was stated in the article Brexit side wanted to delay Article 50 until they get some clarification on the way forward.

Sure, UK wanted out. But they also wanted to keep a lot of the benefits of the EU membership while abandoning some. Keeping single market while limiting movement of people. If that is not cherry-picking then I don’t know what is.

Only option for EU was to make it all or nothing situation. Otherwise there would have been a lot of other members demanding concessions.

Brexit has not been fun for anyone. Not even for those who voted for Brexit. And it should not have been. Like the article said, it’s an amputation, not a negotiation.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 10:11 AM CET

There are many battles fought in a war, You may not win all the battles.
The UK will leave the EU it may take time

Posted on 3/28/19 | 10:29 AM CET

What a sorry tale of self-inflicted tragedy. But it was always going to be so. A discontent nation in the last throes of self-delusion. Hope we find some solace and purpose when the dust finally settles.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 11:06 AM CET

@A Lauridsen ‘For the first part, previous commitments:
This is clearly covered in the – no much vaunted – Vienna Convention on the law of treaties, where a country leaving a treaty is required to honor previous commitments made.’

You can’t break a treaty which has been voided which is what Article 50 does. The Vienna Convention on the law of treaties doesn’t apply in this case. ‘Treaties shall cease to apply’ Art50

Posted on 3/28/19 | 11:07 AM CET

@Toni N – cherry-picking is one way of looking at it, though that suggests that not joining the euro is a benefit – as that is what the UK and Denmark did (as existing members they had that leverage, new members do not). Which is probably not how the Commission sees it.

But inconsitency in following the rules was probably a factor in Brexit – whether that was the application of Schengen, dealing with budget deficits or surpluses, or the treatment of unsteady economies in Greece, Ireland or Cyprus.

The EU is a political club, and the appearance of unity can matter more to the Commission than the reality, so hard decisions are inevitably put off.

My current favourite is Operation Sophia, which has apparently continued (appearances preserved) but without any boats (so no delivery). Three-course dinner all round!

Posted on 3/28/19 | 11:15 AM CET

brexit is a national humiliation for britain. but at least britain knows its real place in the world now. good.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 11:28 AM CET

@ John Smith

“My current favourite is Operation Sophia…”

I agree. Almost as good as the idea that has been put about of a German-French aircraft carrier for the EU, an idea which has been widely derided and mocked in France as the Germans are not even able to build a new Type 125 frigate that doesn’t list to starboard and that requires ballast to stop it from capsizing. There is something Pythonesque about it…

Posted on 3/28/19 | 11:35 AM CET

Yes, the UK wanted to screw the EU again, like in the past 40 years. It did´t work and it has all but killed the parliament in the process. Now comes the blame game. I blame fourty years of British politicians who did´t loose one good word about the EU, although it is responsible for the wealth of the UK as it is. We are tired of the UK. So is EFTA, they don´t like to be discussed as alternative but nobody asked them. Typical British arrogance. If you would have balls you would go Hard Brexit and fall into your sword. Boris Johnson for PM. Man up!

Posted on 3/28/19 | 11:47 AM CET

I don’t agree with the tenor of this article saying that the negotiations were doomed from the beginning. They really started to head in the wrong direction when the Tories failed to win the 2017 election and decided to ally themselves with the DUP to achieve a governing majority. From that point onward, it was predictable that the NI issue would be completely poisoned.

Bear in mind that the proposed backstop has the support of a solid majority in NI, and that voters from the rest of the UK don’t really seem bothered. It is only the extremist fringe which makes much of a fuss about the backstop.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 12:13 PM CET

@Francois P – Brexit cuts accross party lines, so even a parliamentary majority of Conservatives might not have been enough to pass the proposed Withdrawal Agreement.

I think May calling the election when she did had as much to do with domestic politics – a chance to takedown a Corbyn-led Labour party – as it did about increasing her majority.

To ensure Parliamentary backing, the government should have been working on cross-party lines from the beginning, rather than trying to cobble a coalition together at the end.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 12:20 PM CET

@ Andreas Schultheis

You know, as far as we are concerned the EU is like that German frigate I mentioned above – poorly designed and badly implemented. The idea that we want so be tethered any longer to a risible and wonky “EU Aircraft Carrier” – as a symbol of a EU superstate that doesn’t work properly either, and whose global relevance declines year on year, is absurd.
So Tschüss Andreas – und, so hoffe ich, auf Nimmerwiedersehen,

Posted on 3/28/19 | 12:23 PM CET

Not to overly psychologicalise this, but the lesson to be leaned is that the UK’s feeling of Etonian, Wykehamist privilege will not survive encounters with the modern world. Not the EU for next steps – should the UK get that far – nor China, Japan, Russia, India; nor newly confident African and Asian nations. Everyone will have built new playbooks from this (maybe not the USA, though).

Posted on 3/28/19 | 12:52 PM CET

I was always certain no deal will be avoided, but after reading this and yesterday indicative votes am certain is the only way forward. I was always hopeful the UK will rejoin the family of European nations some time in the future but in the case of a no deal the trenches will be drawn and that will be the end of the relationship and some of the British press will see to that.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 1:05 PM CET


Posted on 3/28/19 | 1:11 PM CET

I don’t give a toss how efficient the Uk HOC political system is. Not for me judge as a Parisian

But I think the EU 27 handled it pretty well, that’s it.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 1:28 PM CET

Lionel Sacks

Not to overly psychologicalise this, but the lesson to be leaned is that the UK’s feeling of Etonian, Wykehamist privilege will not survive encounters with the modern world. Not the EU for next steps – should the UK get that far – nor China, Japan, Russia, India; nor newly confident African and Asian nations. Everyone will have built new playbooks from this (maybe not the USA, though). ———————————————–

Since these Etonian have been in control in the last few we have had nothing but trouble in this country, now it looks like that we might get that Boris buffoon Etonian as PM.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 1:59 PM CET

Actually, this is very one sided report… UK did win some battles, the main one been to separate the 4 freedom by agreeing to Theresa May Son of Chequers: Custom Union for goods despite end of freedom of movement. Some complain that a CU for Goods only is advantageous to EU and that UK should have asked for CU for services but UK did not want CU services to be free to adopt its own regulations while regulations for goods are mostly internationally set or set to protect health , etc.. so are not a big deal for UK. EU only conceded to unlock the talks but is very warry that other members may ask for similar deal. Of course, there many other details ignored in this one sided paper. The overall result is that UK got on course to achieve the relationship HMG wants, go FTA while protecting the manufacturing supply chains with a CU for goods until the future relationship is agreed. Obviously, there are many opinions in UK about what the future relationship should be. So far, UK got what HMG asked for and I find disgusting the insults proffered by useless and idiotic UK politicians to the civil servants/lawyers who did this excellent work.

Imagine what the result would have been with Boris at the helm…

Posted on 3/28/19 | 2:05 PM CET

While I have no sympathy for the EU in its current incarnation, it has won the Brexit negotiation, the UK request for an extension proves it beyond any doubt. The article does a great job describing how. But we seem to forget that leaving the EU was a treaty right of the UK. And it’s clear that once the UK decided to exercise it, the EU did everything in its power to maximize the damage to the UK. At no point has the EU provided a clear case about the benefits of staying, only the dangers of leaving. If the only path to maintaining the integrity of the EU is sowing fear, the integrity of the EU won’t last long.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 2:27 PM CET

Att Comment

Dear Politico


If not, How, Why, Where, When

Britain has to Go They have only been needed for what they can bring to the Table


Britain should never have been in this Position
To be under the Thumb of an Administration in Brussells/Strasbourg

People must be scratching there heads wondering how this can Be ?

No matter the Cost


Cheers for Brexit Allways

Donal O’Brien

Posted on 3/28/19 | 2:52 PM CET

The problem the UK had was that the EU only had to wait for it to tear itself apart which it did very successfully from day 1 and has continued to do to this day.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 3:10 PM CET

This is a superb summary. The only criticism I would offer is to politicians in the UK who believed it could go any other way. Rogers in particular is wrong when he says “The EU, while strategically myopic, is formidably good at process against negotiating opponents” There is absolutely nothing strategically myopic in winning both the battle and the war using process tactics. As another unnamed source was cited as having said, this is a lose lose situation. And as I love to point out to those who know little of game theory, there is exactly one strategy in such a game and that is to make sure the other guy loses the most. Furthermore, in the political context and as a matter of survival, long term strategy dictates that the EU make the results of Brexit a continuing pain for the British.

It cannot go any other way. Post Brexit Britain will need to align itself elsewhere. Unquestionably that will be with the US and they very clearly are intent at deconstructing the EU since it constitutes a growing power center and economic competitor. The external diplomatic interests of the EU are also diverging rapidly from US interests in the era of Trump which,charitably, are best described as scatterbrained.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 3:14 PM CET


You obviously where not in the UK during the referendum campaign. So: 1/ It wasn’t up to the EU to make the case to the UK. It was up to UK Remain supporters to make the case.

2/ Making the case was very hard because while Remain argued technically – and clearly the technical arguments are overwhelming both for the value of the EU and the overwhelming domestic problems in leaving (which you see, even now, in the UK) – The Leave arguments where emotional and populist… Even as powerful as those are, the referendum was only lost by less than 2%… not a margin any mature democracy would find acceptable for a massive constitutional change. Even Erdoğan had to fight for his 60%!!

Posted on 3/28/19 | 3:15 PM CET

A very interesting and informative article I disagree that the course of Brexit was set in the immediate aftermath of the referendum. It was set during the campaign itself when the Brexiteers showed themelves wholly delusional in their claims about the strength of the UK’s negotiating position. One of their refrains was “they need us more than we need them”, on the grounds that the UK had a large trade deficit with the rest of the EU. I was always suspicious of this notion that possession of a trade deficit represented a position of strength, and after a little research discovered that I was justified. While we did have a trade deficit 45% of our exports were to the EU while less than 15% of their exports came to us, so the imposition of trade barriers would be a much bigger blow for us than for them. When I presented these figures to Brexiteers they refused to acknowledge that they were compatible with our having a trade deficit : “Where the f*** did you get those figures from” was a typical response. It is a trivial matter to reconcile the two sets of figures when one recalls that the EU-27 is more than five times that of the UK: 15 x 5 = 75, which is a lot bigger than 45, something that my Brexiteer interlocutors never seemed to be able to get their heads round. It would appear that the leaders of their movement couldn’t fathom the arithmetic either, but then BoJo famously only just scraped the necessary Maths grade to get into Oxford, while Michael Gove’s rather puerile obsession with making kids memorise the twelve times table indicated extremely limited mathematical understanding on his part.

Anyway, armed with their delusions the referendum victors proudly claimed that we were “bound to get a good deal” . Our chief negotiator claimed it would be the “easiest deal ever” – German industrialists, fearful of ruin if they lost access to the EU market, would more or less order Angela Merkel to insure some wonderful deal for the UK.

With such a deluded character in charge of negotiations the resulting fiasco was only to be expected. Now we have BoJo, who had previously described the May Deal as making us “vassals” to the EU and “wrapping a suicide vest around our constitution” is now meekly acceding to it.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 3:23 PM CET

Oh I forgot to menion the UK’s chief negotiator was a Conservative politician called David Davies.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 3:31 PM CET

@Lionel Sacks

No I was not, I do have family there (and they’re ardent Remainers). However I am well aware of the fact that the EU through its leadership made several statements intended to convince UK voters to vote Remain. I also think “facts vs. emotions” is an overly simplistic way to look at it. For example, when the Leave campaign used the “350M a week” slogan, the EU and the Remain campaign didn’t explain the value of the 13B Euros the UK contributes annually. Because if you tell someone “yes, you won’t have to pay 13B, but by doing so you’ll lose benefits worth 20B” you’re much more convincing than when you say “hey, even if you choose to leave the EU we’ll make you pay the 13B anyway if you want to trade with us”. That’s what I feel was and is missing from the EU negotiating tactics, and I stand by that.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 3:45 PM CET

Actually reading and understanding Article 50 does not impose a very difficult burden on the intellect. Even a Brexiter could understand it. The process is quite clear, settle your bill and then discuss future arrangements. As usual, the prevailing view in Britain seemed to be that the rules wouldn’t apply to them. Naturally this would have allowed Britain some additional leverage. Alas the EU decided to stick to the text and meaning of the treaty that Britain had signed so as to deprive Britain of that leverage. Why anyone at all in Britain would have expected the EU to behave any differently will always be a mystery to me. They were never going to spot you a rook and a bishop.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 3:49 PM CET

Btw I am really enjoying the comments of these relatively new commenters, Lionel Sacks and GEORGIOS FOTOPOULOS. Good job gentlemen, this is how you conduct a civil reasoned debate. On the point currently at issue between the two of you I tend to side with Lionel. On other points Georgious. It really was up to British Remainers to make the case for remaining in the EU. They were ineffective, largely, in my opinion, because it simply would do in British politics for any politician to passionately defend EU membership. Would it have been helpful for the EU to have undertaken that task in the referendum? I doubt it. It would have been perceived and weaponized by the Leave side as an unwarranted and typical example of EU interference in British domestic affairs. Only the Americans and the Russians are allowed to do that.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 4:00 PM CET

We’ll “settle our bill” when the EU settles there’s and pays off all the assets we jointly own. They didn’t want to do that though did they so they get nothing in return. Which is why the EU could never take it to court – because there’d be a counter-claim for many hundreds of billions more in return.

The money promised in the WA assuming it is ratified is a goodwill payment to help the EU out in its time of trouble to move things along. It is NOT a bill payment for moneys owed.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 4:00 PM CET

Not sure why I used there’s there instead of theirs

Posted on 3/28/19 | 4:01 PM CET

Exactly – the £350million / week to the NHS was an emotional slogan. Where as the accountants sheet showing the returns of £billions is just dry facts… not simplistic at all. Clearly Leave had the marketing skilz sorted. This is a particularly well known example, and I’ve no doubt MBAs will be studying it for years to come.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 4:20 PM CET

Well Brussels who had no worries about UK leaving the EU 27, and would not miss it, are now war gaming and taking emergency actions.

“The EU has moved into full crisis mode, with officials now setting the terms the UK will have to meet for Brussels to open talks on avoiding an economic meltdown in the weeks after a no-deal Brexit. In anticipation of a no-deal outcome EU ambassadors opened discussions on the terms to be set for the bloc to return to the negotiating table.

EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, told the diplomats of his heightened concern during the meeting on Thursday morning, and the urgent need to war-game the bloc’s response to it. The EU is to step up its “full on crisis” preparations, according to a diplomatic note.”

Posted on 3/28/19 | 4:28 PM CET


And worse still, George. The Leave campaign systematically shut down any discussion about just where the “sunny uplands” of brexit lay and what the route was there. And this is why the current going ons in Westminster have us all glued to the blogs and twitters and stuff…. That the campaign was about flim-flam and not facts has meant lifelong brexiteers, as diverse of Corbyn, Rees-Mogg and May, etc. can all claim “Will of the People” and keep a straight face while proposing totally divergent ideas.

You want to know why this is a mess? (And make no mistake, many of us said “this is going to be a mess, no one is discussing the practicalities of unwinding 40 years of legislation and 5 million people’s lives etc.”) This is a mess not because the EU played a blinder, that’s their job after all. But because Leave was a negative, populist campaign. Plane and simple. And, as you say, such campaigns don’t do well on hard facts and realistic approaches to problems.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 4:35 PM CET

Marvelous and fascinating.

I hope this is an outline for a book. I’ll buy it. 🙂

Posted on 3/28/19 | 4:49 PM CET


…. At no point has the EU provided a clear case about the benefits of staying, only the dangers of leaving.. ——————

Errr, the UK had already decide to go, why should the EU try to overturn the democratic will of the “people” by ways of offering bribes to the UK to stay??

Posted on 3/28/19 | 5:14 PM CET

It’s interesting that no poster seems to be noticing a big elephant in the room, which got underlined in the article: “Cameron had told his fellow leaders at the summit that immigration [from the EU] had been a driving factor in the Britain’s decision to leave”.

The British are leaving the EU not because they want to break with any of EU’s established frameworks. Quite the contrary, they’d do everything to remain under one condition: that the influx of the Eastern Europeans gets halted, if not reversed. And to achieve it they’re ready to cut the vital supply of workforce for their economy and leave with no deal, with all the political and economic ramifications attached.

It’s somewhat disturbing to see Poland, my homeland and the biggest source of immigrants in the UK, once again driving involuntarily a wedge between the Western powers. The constellations and alliances keep changing, but the Polish question keeps troubling European policymakers.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 5:24 PM CET


Well done! you have managed to totally contradict yourself within a couple of paragraphs

“sunny uplands” of brexit ‘…Leave was a negative, populist campaign.’

Now its one or the other Lionel. Was it a sunny upland campaign or was it a negative campaign?

Any cursory view of the facts show leave was optimistic about what the country could achieve, whilst remain was highly negative and fearful of being in the big world outside of the embrace of its smothering and controlling nanny.

Here is an academic review of the reasons people voted as they did

Posted on 3/28/19 | 5:43 PM CET


you said

‘It really was up to British Remainers to make the case for remaining in the EU. They were ineffective, largely, in my opinion, because it simply would do in British politics for any politician to passionately defend EU membership. ‘

Are you being serious? The establishment has been very firmly remain since around 1990. No mainstream party offered any choice but to support the EU for decades. Promised referendums were denied to us. The remain camp had vastly more resources than leave and passionately defended the EU.

It was David and goliath and goliath was fanatically pro remain and not afraid of saying so via the BBC, Obama, Lagarde, the Bank of England and well funded social media.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 5:51 PM CET

@Lionel Sacks

In fairness, the record of the EU when it comes to economic predictions is not exactly stellar. Part of the reason is they keep making these long term predictions to fit certain narratives, and anyone with even passable knowledge of macroeconomics understands that 30 and 50 year predictions are garbage. I understand that this may not go down well, but I think apart from marketing skills, the Leave campaign had a much more substantive advantage: a specific proposal. Leave the EU and your problems will be solved. The other side’s argument was “if you leave things will get worse”. Well, some people felt things were as bad as they could get already, and they went and voted Brexit in a “let’s try this” mood, and I believe the same can be said about those who voted for Trump in the US. I think the EU will keep losing support until it comes up with an aspirational message.


Pretty much what I said above, ever since the Brits decided to leave, from the EU side Brexit has been about messaging to the rest of the bloc at least as much as it has been about sorting out the Brexit issues.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 5:53 PM CET

@GEORGIOS FOTOPOULOS …. For example, when the Leave campaign used the “350M a week” slogan, the EU and the Remain campaign didn’t explain the value of the 13B Euros the UK contributes annually. Because if you tell someone “yes, you won’t have to pay 13B, but by doing so you’ll lose benefits worth 20B” —————–

that is a lie and you use it as a trap to come across as someone reasonable whereas in your case that is not true you appear to have an irrational dislike of the EU.

So basicaly you are saying that for every lie the “Leave” would post on a bus the others would have to reply with convinsing arguments to stay!
Now how can someone provide a convinsing ROI for a made up number (350M per week), the next day BoZo would post on the bus that the UK send to the EU 550M GBP per week, following your logic the others would then need to provide a convinsing ROI for that? again the emphasis here that the 350M per week to the EU are a lie.

What about the 70M Turks moving to the UK? the others according to you would have to detail a immigration & intigration policy that outlines the benefits of those 70M imaginary new comers to the UK, and how they will start building houses to accommodate them!!

Posted on 3/28/19 | 5:55 PM CET


You say

‘While we did have a trade deficit 45% of our exports were to the EU while less than 15% of their exports came to us, so the imposition of trade barriers would be a much bigger blow for us than for them. ‘

12% of our gdp is export trade to the EU. the vast majority of companies have no direct relationship with it. Our trade deficit with the EU is some 80 billion a year, most of it not structural items but items that can be bought elsewhere.

Over 75% of our imports and exports to the EU are with the same seven countries not 27. It is those seven countries most likely to be damaged so quoting the gdp for the whole block is a little misleading as it is not the whole bloc that will be affected.

The Economist worked out that we would collect roughly 12 billion a year more in tariffs than we would need to expend. With such a huge trade imbalance that should not be a surprise

Posted on 3/28/19 | 5:59 PM CET

@GIORGOS, Pretty much what I said above, ever since the Brits decided to leave, from the EU side Brexit has been about messaging to the rest of the bloc at least as much as it has been about sorting out the Brexit issues. ———–

messaging what? and what do you consider Brexit issues? You statement sounds good but it explains nothing

Posted on 3/28/19 | 6:00 PM CET

Nice work @ Politico.

David Allen Green, in the FT, has a similar, three part series, article on how the EU set down the processes and its goals within. A fascinating read.

It is, also, true, that the negotiations weren’t really negotiations at all. The EU is a legal construct, the process could only ever be dictated by EU laws and treaties, ie., by legal process.

The EU is/was not going away, nor changing its status quo, read: its legal order. The UK was doing so.

All of this was known and predicted by people on both sides of the channel.

Facts and reality. That’s all there is to it.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 6:05 PM CET


Sorry but I will have you pick you up again

‘Our chief negotiator claimed it would be the “easiest deal ever”

I suggest you do some research and come back to this forum and complete the rest of his statement as you appear to have truncated it.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 6:07 PM CET

Why no Tony I am not kidding. Of course the “elites” knew that joining in the EU and staying in it were advantageous. They still do. But as we all know from recent populist insurgencies elites are always wrong. It is people who know little or nothing who know best.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 6:09 PM CET

@ P.Monta

“It is people who know little or nothing who know best.”

So just like you, in other words.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 6:13 PM CET

I’d agree with Tony Browne, Remain started with the advantage, with the establishment (politicians, civil servants, media) largely behind it. That they blew it has already been the subject of some good books and blogs.

Establishment support for Remain is also arguably one reason why negotiations to date have been so inconclusive.

Whether Leave could repeat the feat in a second referendum, I don’t know. But it would not only be Leave that would need to make a more evidence-based case, Remain too would no longer be claiming that only 7% of UK laws came from the EU, for instance.

I’m sure the EU presidents would have contributed to the debate, but I imagine Remain thought it wouldn’t be helpful. Obama was deployed, but was past his apogee of popularity, and the US certainly wouldn’t want to be in such a union with its neighbours.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 6:14 PM CET


‘Even as powerful as those are, the referendum was only lost by less than 2%…’

No it wasn’t, it was won by 4% not 2% despite the enormous resources the UK establishment put in to it, plus Obama, Lagarde, the Bank of England. That equated to 450 constituencies voting for leave compared to 250 for remain . That is a landslide in anyone’s language.

I assume you are a remain supporter in the Remain bubble of London?

Did you not get the detailed explanatory leaflet sent by the govt to every household in the UK?

Posted on 3/28/19 | 6:16 PM CET

@John Smith
“Establishment support for Remain is also arguably one reason why negotiations to date have been so inconclusive.”

Dolchstoßlegende … there really isn’t anything new in the world any longer, is there?

Posted on 3/28/19 | 6:22 PM CET

Why did Cameron hold a referendum that could not fail to produce stark and nearly irreconcilable differences in the British electorate? All we have to go on are the actual statements he made on the matter. Britain wanted changes in the EU and they weren’t getting them. What better way to show the EU that the population of Britain had grave reservations about trends in the EU? But Leave wasn’t supposed to win, they were just supposed to get close as all the polls showed was the case. Alas they won.

In retrospect this seems kind of inevitable. The Leavers arguments were consistent, the Remainers arguments? Anybody remember Corbyn’s passionate speeches advocating staying in the EU? Don’t worry if you don’t. They never happened. On the Conservative Remain side we mostly got weaseling about how, on balance and for all the many faults they did not hesitate to list, Britain needed the EU and would be better off staying in. How inspiring was that?

Posted on 3/28/19 | 6:31 PM CET

peter monta

your 6.31. difficult to disagree with anything you wrote.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 6:50 PM CET

@A Laurisden – backstab legend? Are you referring to the German establishment claim that they could have won WW1, had it not been for meddling civilians, rather than being comprehensively defeated as they were? And which then lead to a second attempt to try and overturn the result of the first contest, which also failed, despite all the resources of the state being thrown behind it?

I’m not sure where you are going with this analogy…

Posted on 3/28/19 | 6:53 PM CET

@Arnold Nussbaum Where is the problem with Ireland.

GB can just ‘give away’ Northern Ireland’ to the Republic. They did it many times before, giving land away that not really belonged to them

You have obviously missed the EU mantra about the need to protect the Belfast Agreement – despite the fact that it has and can have nothing to say about open borders/ customs & regulatory controls

Posted on 3/28/19 | 6:53 PM CET

@Tony Browne

The unelected elite who have been feeding at the golden trough with the compliance of the people have been found out.

The tectonic plates are shifting as parts of the EU takes a Eurosceptic direction which will set it against the unelected bureaucrats that have taken root and the leaders who have never bothered to ask the people if they are heading in the direction they want. ——————————————————————- In the past, the UK had been fighting the EU establishment but has never been able to form any meaningful alliances with other Countries in the EU so our efforts have fallen on stony ground. The Franco-German “engine” has been setting the agenda and it turned into an ideology, they wish to turn the EU into a federal state. I believe this is a potentially fatal decision on their part as to where they wish to go with this delusion. The rest of the EU countries have been Passively going along with this and the sense of entitlement of Franco-German “engine” has been so overwhelming that resistance as seemed useless. As you say things are changing in the EU, so it seems such a shame that we are leaving now. I believe we should stay in the EU and build alliances, which is becoming more and more viable as time goes by.

I have always believed Europe should grow more organically and be, for the coming period a confederation, not a federation and find a much more dynamic Democracy that fits the reality of what Europe really is.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 7:33 PM CET


I think part of the problem is equating disapproval of the EU to “irrational hatred”. Yes, I believe EU policy is driven by a lethal combination of entitlement and short sighted thinking. You are quick to denounce that. Well, unlike you, I don’t think someone who believes that the EU is great is automatically crazy. So I will engage them in dialogue, and hopefully both sides will learn something out of it. So, to go back to the “350M a week”. The UK net contribution to the EU is about 13B (Euros) annually. Divide that by 52 and you get a number of 250M Euros. So, even if the UK could make a clean break with the EU (i.e with no sums owed) and there was 0 cost for being outside the EU, the net benefit would be much smaller than 350 Million pounds a week. No one made that case, and no, it’s not highly technical, it’s elementary school math. The EU and/or the Remain camp did not focus on making that case. So they ran the campaign choosing to focus on other arguments, lost, and have spent the last two years blaming everything and everyone except their own choices about the result. Now that’s completely irrational.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 8:12 PM CET


Sorry, missed your second post. EU Messaging = “this is what happens when you decide to leave” and Brexit issues = the object of the negotiations related to Brexit, i.e financial obligations, citizens rights, future relationship etc. etc. , my point is that the EU conducted every aspect of the negotiation with two concerns, one if the proposed solution was acceptable within the context of the negotiation and two, what implications it might have for the relationship between the EU and other countries that are or will be considering leaving the bloc.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 8:19 PM CET


I enjoy your comments but think you have been misled here

‘So, even if the UK could make a clean break with the EU (i.e with no sums owed) and there was 0 cost for being outside the EU, the net benefit would be much smaller than 350 Million pounds a week. No one made that case, and no, it’s not highly technical, it’s elementary school math. ‘

No, there were many other things in that calculation not least the ‘cost of compliance’ with eu rules for every UK business whereas only 5% of UK businesses have any dealings with the EU.

The Economist estimated this at 32 billion a year. Now it would be very foolish to refuse any rules as many are sensible and we might even have instigated them. Some half of the total though has been estimated to be irrelevant for companies not actively trading with the EU .

The second aspect is the European wide contracts scheme whereby contracts above a certain amount have to be advertised Eu wide. The Germans and French cite security and other reasons for not fully complying with this. Again it would be foolish to go for a UK quote that was wildly uncompetitive or technologically far inferior, but we often accept quotes that are little different to those supplied by UK companies and do not take into account other factors such as tax take and Vat or employment benefits.

Again this cost has been estimated at tens of billions a year but varies wildly according to the needs of the economy at any time for large infrastructure requirements.

We are also obliged to spend 2% of our gdp on defence whereas others do not do so. In that respect we are directly underpinning the defence of our neighbours for free, whilst they can spend the money on grand projects or social benefits.

So the 350 million should not be considered in isolation but should be put into a much broader context.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 8:55 PM CET

Presuming the presented facts are correct, a good analysis. There is however one important thing that is not mentioned and that has been a catastrophic failure of mrs May. Mrs May forgot to build a strong consensus by involving all parties in the HoC to formulate a strategy, that would on the one hand ensure that the UK left the political part of the EU, but not its economical part. To lead one must have followers. She focused entirely on what the majority of her party wanted, rather than what the majority in the HoC wanted. She lacked the leadership and strategic insight to convince her party that such an approach was necessary and lost because of that the snap elections and the support of the majority in the HoC.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 9:23 PM CET

Toni N
Exit from the EU should never be an easy process. Same should go for entering the EU. A lot of problems that EU has right now stem from expanding too fast and accepting member states before they were completely ready to enter the Union.

I agree fully.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 9:30 PM CET


You are again resorting to sneaky smearing. Where are you from, where do you live and what is your reason for doing so?

Posted on 3/28/19 | 9:42 PM CET

The Franco-German “engine” has been setting the agenda and it turned into an ideology, they wish to turn the EU into a federal state. I believe this is a potentially fatal decision on their part as to where they wish to go with this delusion.

You may think, but it is not supported by facts. Small countries in the EU use the significant power they have in the EU. It is just the media that hype high level meetings between France and Germany. Additionally, France and Germany often disagree, maybe more than they agree. Finally, no EU member state wants to be ruled by the EU. That is why the EU Council is and will remain the principle power of the EU. Only where it is evident that sharing of sovereignty has significant added value, member states are willing to discuss handing it over to the EU. Governments do not want to give away power, parliaments do not want to give away power and citizens want to be ruled by their own governments for things that matter most to them. The feelings in that respect are not much different from that in the UK.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 10:17 PM CET


The “cost of compliance” is not money paid to the EU. In every country estimates can be made of unnecessary regulations and potential savings from both locally initiated regulations and internationally initiated regulations. It is for MEP’s to make sure that unnecessarily high administrative burdens are prevented.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 10:28 PM CET

@Tony Browne

I wrote “even if….” i.e I get that a) the UK would still have to pay into the EU budget and b) there are all sorts of costs involved (including those you mentioned), my point was that the Brexit campaign made a claim that could easily be disproved yet no one bothered to

@ Paul NL

I am not a person, I am a bot stored in a Russian-owned server, programmed to work around the clock to bring down the EU. Happy now?

Posted on 3/28/19 | 10:31 PM CET

On the Irish Border question – it is the case (is it not?) that the Good Friday Agreement is underpinned by international treaty? And it is the case that the GFA prohibits any kind of hard border on the island of Ireland. Therefore the EU never could ‘ .. have made Dublin share some of the costs of Brexit by imposing a border with Northern Ireland ..’ because such a border is banned by international law. Remember that the EU’s first (and preferred) fix to this was a backstop (maybe never needed) that NI would remain in the customs union. In the event the backstop was activated – well yes there would have been a customs border ‘down the Irish Sea’. Knowing this would be totally unacceptable to the DUP the UK negotiated, instead, that under the backstop the entire UK would remain in the Customs Union – and the EU conceded this though it was opposed to the idea (it gives lucrative ‘unearned’ trade advantages to the UK). None-the-less, back at home that has been deemed unacceptable as well. This is a logical impasse created by unrealistic expectation in conflict with international treaty obligations. It should have been anticipated (and probably was by plenty of civil servants) – but the message was just too unwelcome. The fact that Brexit will cost Ireland dear does not seem to cause any concern in eth UK – another example of living in a fantasy. We are unlikely to keep the Irish as good friends if our unilateral action makes them poorer. Next time you hear Andrea Leadsom refer to ‘our European friends’, remember that.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 10:35 PM CET

@Gerry Hofman

Perhaps the EU took the line it did because it always suspected that the Brits would attempt to break it apart, that they had felt confident this would happen anyhow, as that would have vindicated the entire Brexit process and all the posturing and hostility that preceded it.

Juncker is on record as having expressed that opinion in regards to both the Brits and the US, he felt Anglosaxons in general felt hostility towards the EU and wanted to see it break up and fall apart. So the suspicions were already there, the decisions already made and the EU closed its ranks well before the day. […]”

I think you nailed the essence with this comment. The EU heard the noises coming out of the UK (the battle-bus slogan, “have our cake and eat it”, “go whistle”), saw that the UK intended to ‘talk to the organ grinder directly’ (not the EU but each individual capital) as evidenced by a quick series of visits of various capitals.

Upon seeing and hearing all that the EU decided that the UK was simply going for the jugular.

By setting a new standard of shedding its EU burdens while keeping the benefits, by using the money they already owed as a means of wresting a favourable trade deal from the EU and by splitting the EU into its component parts.

Hard to fault the EU for trying to blunt the UK’s hostile strategy by taking a legalistic view, eh?

And now the UK are sore because the EU’s tactic worked and theirs didn’t. Says it all really.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 11:09 PM CET

Hey UK, we’re not punishing you, just caring for our interests. I know, losing sucks. But that’s what often happens when you pick a fight with someone over 7 times as big as you are. Remember: it was your choice. For all your “excentricities” we accepted you and considered you as one of our own. You kept demanding more and we accepted every time. Your economy thrived, but you refused to help us help needy Greece. At the end, you decided that we were not good enough for you. Did you want to punish us for not caving enough? Maybe not, but it is hard to deny a good amount of hostility towards us, the uncivilised Continent that gave the world two wars and that you saved.

You know, you can just walk away from the EU… but what you really wanted is not that. You wanted us to suffer and to beg and you want us to dismantle the EU. And it didn’t happen. And it hurts you when you see we can imagine our future without you better than you can. You are a small Country just as the rest of us. Come back a few years after Brexit, the harder the better, when you realize the rest of us are just as special as you are, and we will gladly welcome you. After all, we are safer, and stronger, together.

Posted on 3/28/19 | 11:41 PM CET

Paul Cairns
And it is the case that the GFA prohibits any kind of hard border on the island of Ireland.

No, the GFA does not prohibit that. It is however obviously against the intention of the GFA, which is peace in NI. The GFA is of itself an international treaty, viz between the RoI and the UK.

Posted on 3/29/19 | 12:03 AM CET

I am not a person, I am a bot stored in a Russian-owned server, programmed to work around the clock to bring down the EU.

You act like it, but a bot of that kind would not reveal itself.

Posted on 3/29/19 | 12:08 AM CET

This overly long article ignores the facts.

Senior members of the UK Civil Service think EU membership is the best thing going. Libraries full of EU laws and Regulations have massively increased the number of Civil Service jobs – so much so that pay and conditions have massively improved. I was told by a British lawyer that as a direct result of EU membership the earnings of UK lawyers have tripled in real terms. I’m sure this applies to the UK Civil Service.

Mrs May who is known for listening to Civil Servants rather than political colleagues decided that she could not run a second referendum because a fair referendum would be lost by a much bigger margin – and a clearly biased referendum would cause even more trouble.

My assessment is that May on Civil Service instructions decided to go for BRINO and keep the UK in regulatory alignment with the EU so that when the day came that it was politically expedient to re-join the EU the UK could just jump right back in. She probably believes the idea that when older people die off, younger people with no idea of life outside the EU will vote in favour. It might just be that as they get older they also get wiser and more cynical about the EU.

She even wants the UK to be seen to fail economically as a direct result of BREXIT believing that will strengthen the case for re-entry. All sorts of ideas like agreeing to massive payments to the EU, staying in the Customs Union and obeying EU regulations are all designed to cripple the UK economy. What do the Government and the Civil Service care? They will get their money no matter that the people who really earn the money have to tighten their belts.

Almost certainly, UK Civil Servants fed all kinds of secret information back to the EU motivated by the same kind of treachery that motivated the Cambridge five. The false belief that a foreign state has seen the light. For all we know, May gave them the green light.

My bet is the the EU could not believe their luck to negotiate with somebody who was on their side. The small difficultly, is that nobody thinks May’s deal is anything other than a stitch up. The EU pushed too hard – but then nobody ever said the EU treated ordinary taxpayers fairly. They just feed bucket loads of cash to Universities, Media companies and Civil Servants to buy their loyalty.

Posted on 3/29/19 | 12:20 AM CET



… So, to go back to the “350M a week”. The UK net contribution to the EU is about 13B (Euros) annually. Divide that by 52 and you get a number of 250M Euros. So, even if the UK could make a clean break with the EU (i.e with no sums owed) and there was 0 cost for being outside the EU, the net benefit would be much smaller than 350 Million pounds a week. No one made that case, and no, it’s not highly technical, it’s elementary school math. The EU and/or the Remain camp did not focus on making that case. … ————–

No mate, the net UK contribution is under 10bl, and this highlights my point. someone throws around a lie and then in turn you come and tell us that people please ignore the lie, the other side did not produce a bigger lie more appealing to to the people who base their voting decisions on lies. So if BoZo would post on a bus 950M go to EU per week the other would have to prove return on investment greater than 950m per week

When Farage says 70M Turks will move to the UK you expect the remain side to prove that 70M will be benefical to the UK economy instead of attacking the lie that Farage said, you are not making a serious point, you just excuse liars!!!

Posted on 3/29/19 | 12:24 AM CET

An excellent review of how the British Conservative Party, AKA The Tories, nailed Britain to a cross while shooting themselves in the head. But …

What is missing is why they did so. There is a popular opinion that it was British fear of foreigners taking their jobs, a thinly disguised act of racism. I believe this is essentially true but it was minor but used as a front by wealthy opportunists to get Britain out of the EU.

Why? Because the very wealthy are being investigated and attacked by EU regulations to stop the wealthy that are avoiding taxes by hiding vast sums of money offshore. The EU is serious about stopping tax evasion and money laundering that is undermining legitimate financing of governance worldwide, not just in the EU. The Tories and British public are being manipulated by secretly financed media campaigns.

Follow the money! Follow the money! Follow the money!

Posted on 3/29/19 | 1:40 AM CET

@ XK M

I looked it up again. The UK gross contribution to the EU is 13 Billion Pounds, the net is 8.9 Billion pounds, at the time of the referendum the pound was about 1.3 Euros, so the net contribution in Euros (the currency I used in the original post) was 11.57B Euros. You are right, and my number was wrong any way you slice it. It was an honest mistake though, not an attempt to propagate lies. On to the second point, the 70M Turks that are about to move to the UK according to Farage. Don’t you agree that simply saying “well, that’s unlikely because the total population of Turkey is 79 million” would be a more effective argument than “you are a filthy liar and those who vote for you are idiots”? Is it really that difficult to accept that you can’t go and insult the people you need to vote for you? If you can’t be bothered to take the time to address their concerns, no matter how nonsensical they seem to you, guess what, they’ll vote for someone who took the time.

Posted on 3/29/19 | 2:38 AM CET

Many in the UK voted to leave the EU for the same reason that many in the US voted for Trump. They “wanted to take their country back,” as a well educated friend of mine put it, to my surprise. And it had the same results–chaos and bad government. We will survive Trump and the UK will survive Brexit, but what a folly.

Posted on 3/29/19 | 4:09 AM CET

At the end of this article, this question is asked: “Should [the EU] have made Dublin share some of the costs of Brexit by imposing a border with Northern Ireland instead of the backstop?”. Why ON EARTH should Ireland (or any other country) “share” ANY cost of a decision made by ANOTHER country which was completely oblivious and unconcerned of the impact of its self-centered decision to leave the EU…?

Posted on 3/29/19 | 4:19 AM CET

Well if the Brits are crying foul now, good luck with the Trump and the Chinese. Brexit is based on lies, it is not the obligation of Brussels to turn lies into truths.

Posted on 3/29/19 | 10:10 AM CET

The point I am making is that you can not blame “remain” for not making a economic case to counter every lie that “leave” would spout, every day “leave” would issue a new lie and you would have “remain” running after them with economic models to provide benefits for every lie made by “leave”. On top of it you had “leave” openly asking people to ignore experts! Brexit is based on lies and blind faith, no amount of economic modeling or rational reasoning would convince anyone. how could “remain” counter the lie that the animal lovers were bombarded with daily from “leave” that if they did not like bullfight in Spain then they should vote for leaving the EU. According to your logic “remain” would have to provide a possitive analysis of the benefits that bullfighting provides. Also it took someone like yourself, who has done some research, so long to realise that there was never “350M a week” going to the EU, what chance the rest of Brexitears had?

Posted on 3/29/19 | 10:59 AM CET

An interesting analysis of the events, but I think that there is one point missing. Blaming the “lost battle” on technicalities of party politics and lack of negotiation skills misses the roots of the mess, namely the understanding of democracy. It is deeply saddening to watch how one of the oldest modern democracies handles a democratic decision. Democracy is not a “battle”. Democracy is not, or at least should not be, a game where “the winner takes it all”. This is not how democracy works. Every nation and every community is and always will be divided in interests, wishes, hopes and aims. The task of democracy is to make the life in such diversity bearable to all, not just to the winners. The matters of democracy need to be re-negotiated prior and after any decision. Such processes tend to be long, annoying, sometimes frustrating and boring. Especially when the so called direct democracy is involved. I am speaking from experience. I happen to live in a country which has a long experience with direct democracy, and which, as everybody will agree, is highly successful with it.

Let me explain how the Brexit matters appear from the Swiss point of view. First of all, the Swiss people would not vote about a question in the style as put to the people in the Cameron referendum. If you ask people “Would you like to pay a good dinner or rather have a free lunch?”, very probably the majority will choose the free lunch. This is not how direct democracy is practiced in Switzerland. There are two kinds of direct participation on the federal level: i) Constitutional initiative, which requires 100’000 signatures to be voted on (about 1.2% of population). ii) Referendum on a law, which requires 50’000 signatures, unless it is obligatory. For the adoption of an initiative or obligatory referendum a majority of both, the people and the cantons (member states of the confederation) is required. What people and cantons decide when voting on an initiative is whether a specific amendment, prepared by the initiative committee, is to be written into the constitution.

Let us suppose, for fun, that Switzerland has joined EU in 1975. Very likely, somebody would soon have started a Swexit initiative. What could be the proposed constitutional amendment? One can’t write Switzerland exits the EU in the constitution, because exit is a transient event, but constitution is not meant to be transient. It should last at least for a while. So the text of the amendment could be something like: Switzerland will not be a member of EU. Transitory provision: Federal government takes measures to exit the EU.
Let us further suppose that this initiative was adopted by a majority 52:48. Now the work would start for the government and for the parliament, who would attempt to sort out what Swexit means, for the winners as well for the losers. Certainly, the government can’t declare the Swexit before parliament and people agree on a law. After long discussions in both chambers, the parliament would finally approve a first version of the law, which, of course, would be subject to a referendum. Another chance for both, the winners and the losers. Most likely, the law would be rejected by the people from both sides and the discussions would continue, until… Meanwhile, somebody would have submitted a new initiative, aiming at erasing the EU-amendment, at least until the matters are sorted out. An open ended process. Such a perspective may be one of the reasons why Swiss are traditionally reluctant in joining international institutions. It is so hard to get out of them democratically, especially in a direct participative democracy.

But let’s be realistic. Switzerland is not in the EU, but it is bound to it through a number of agreements, including a version of “free movement of people”. Of course free movement causes migration pressure for any rich country. According to OECD, 29% of Swiss population is foreign born (as compared with 14% in UK). No wonder that there has been an initiative “Against mass immigration”, demanding strict limits on the yearly immigration numbers (from the EU) as well as cancelation of international treaties violating such limits. The initiative got approved with a tight margin 50.34: 49.66. (Apparently, a highly divided nation, the Swiss). So what to do now? Should the winner take it all? Taking the “will of people” literally, would have meant exiting the Swiss-EU treaties, so vital for the Swiss economy. Finally, after almost three years of discussions, the government and parliament agreed on a “compromise” that was found to be acceptable also for the EU: No limitations in numbers, just a sort of priority for Swiss in the labor market. This is clearly a violation of “peoples will”. The “winners” did not require a referendum, but launched instead an initiative with almost the same, only harder content. In brief: Switzerland is solely responsible for the regulation of immigration of foreigners. International treaties requiring freedom of movement are forbidden. Transitory provision: By means of negotiations, the “free movement” paragraph of the existing treaty between EU and Switzerland is to be removed within 12 month after the acceptance of the initiative. If the negotiations fail, then government is obliged to cancel the treaty within 30 days.

The voting will be in 2021. I doubt very much that the text will be adopted by the people.

But matters in direct democracy are even more complicated. Important issues that bothered the British leave voters were sovereignty and self-determination. “By chance” we had a voting on such matters just last autumn, namely the initiative “Swiss law instead of foreign judges”. The proposed text of the constitution amendment can be summarized as follows:
The Swiss constitution is superior to any international law (with a couple of exceptions). Switzerland does not accept any international obligations contradicting the Swiss law. Transitory provision: Federal government is obliged to check all existing and future treaties and take measures to leave a treaty when the principle is violated. This initiative got rejected by a margin of 66.2:33.8 Perhaps, the text was badly worded or just too complicated for the stupid people…

So is the life in direct democracy. One constantly keeps negotiating and re-negotiating. As for the EU, the Swiss keep negotiating since about 50years, mostly among themselves. The process will continue as long as EU and Switzerland exist, no matter if Switzerland joins the EU or not. Sure, the Swiss type of democracy is rather slow, annoying, or even boring. But it is surprisingly successful. Therefore my suggestion for UK would be “Put it to the people”.

That’s quite normal in democracy.

Posted on 3/29/19 | 11:08 AM CET


I get what you’re saying, I really do. And it might have made perfect sense a few years ago. But the Trump election, Brexit, national elections all over Europe and (if current projections prove true) the upcoming European election show that what we call the “political mainstream” or “political establishment” is struggling to persuade people and I offered a reason (wrong messaging) and a remedy (focus on issues, not calling names). If you feel that mainstream political parties are doing just fine, there’s not much more to discuss. If you think they’re not, but it’s not a problem of messaging, what is it? And if you think they’re not doing fine, it’s about the messaging, but the solution is not debating populist narratives point for point, what would you suggest?

Posted on 3/29/19 | 11:50 AM CET

if in your remedy (focus on issues) by issues you mean real issues not addressing lies then happy to go along with it, you can enhance it further by suggesting the remedy should also address the lies issue by ensuring the rules states that if lies are made during the campaign the result is null and void.

Posted on 3/29/19 | 12:06 PM CET

Whether the UK lost Brexit negotiation will become clear in ten years. It is already evident the Marxist’s EU lost Brexit negotiation as the second biggest member is leaving.

More to this other countries will follow the UK example if Europeans do not purge Marxists from the EU institutions.

Posted on 3/29/19 | 1:29 PM CET

+ Jakub Danilewicz

Your real homeland must be east of Poland in Russia or south-east of Poland in Golan Heights if you draw from David Cameron’s remarks he meant imigration from Poland was a reason of Brexit and especially if you say any Polish question keeps troubling any European politicians so much they decide to divide Europe. Well, except the ones of Marxist origin. 🙂

Posted on 3/29/19 | 2:30 PM CET

Re: maciek

Given the scale of immigration from the Eastern Europe (and from Poland in particular) I have little doubt that David Cameron meant this particular wave of immigration. Theresa May at “her first Tory Party conference as prime minister in October 2016 […] had clarified her position. Brexit meant controlling immigration from the EU.”

Just remember the panic mode that set in media when Romania and Bulgaria citizens were about to get unconstrained access to the UK’s work market. The “vermin”, as sprayed on the walls and printed in leaflets in the Brexit aftermath, was not coming from India or Italy.

And really not sure what Marxism (or any other political philosophy) has to do with this issue. It really does not matter whether it is Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn (or anyone particular in the EU institutions), because the root of pro-Brexit sentiment remains unchanged: the backlash against a huge wave of immigrants coming from the single market.

Posted on 3/29/19 | 3:30 PM CET



“The point I am making is that you can not blame “remain” for not making a economic case to counter every lie that “leave” would spout, every day “leave” would issue a new lie and you would have “remain” running after them with economic models to provide benefits for every lie made by “leave”.

No matter how many times I provide actual factual evidence to disprove your comments you keep coming back with them. Provide evidence for your ‘new lie a day,’ over a six month campaign and a concentrated last six weeks. That is a challenge to you to put up or shut up.

In the meantime do you need to be reminded that the remain side forecast that directly after a leave vote that there would be an immediate collapse in house prices, a huge spike in inflation, a huge spike in unemployment, that services would collapse, interest rates would soar and our gdp would plummet and Obama was asked to say to us we would go to the back of the queue for any trade deal.

None of those things have happened and despite the uncertainty and fear mongering we remain one of the strongest economies in Europe (not that that is much of a criteria)

Why do you never talk of remain ‘lies’ which received far more attention as they came from the government, business the universities etc and had far more air time. The govt also sent a leaflet to every household in the country setting out the fate that would befall us if we dared to defy them.

So try to be more even handed and I am waiting with baited breath for this new lie a day evidence

Posted on 3/29/19 | 5:07 PM CET