Brexit negotiations: how is the UK doing?

Chris Kendall is a European civil servant (a ‘eurocrat’) who works  in foreign policy and has 20+ years’ experience working in the EU and Whitehall. This week he published an article Brexit negotiations: how is the UK doing? which I highly recommend. Here follows an extended summary of the article. Chris has been informed that the article will be published today and hopefully he will have time to respond to queries.

As a negotiator with years of experience he boiled tips for successful negotiation down to three golden rules. He says this is not rocket science and the three rules seem to me at least to be almost so obvious that they shouldn’t need stating. Sadly they do not seem obvious to our Brexit negotiating team!


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

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

Sadly much of this was for a domestic audience and beating the patriotic drum goes down well with the right wing of the Tory party. My view is that it is treasonous to put narrow political advantage before the good of the country. Possibly it has always been thus with the Tories. Edward Carson, the founding father of Northern Ireland, said in his later years “What a fool I was. I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power.” These events happened about 100 years ago.


2 Know yourself.

There are two main themes Chris explores here. Does May really speak for the whole country or understand the UK? Given May is only in government because she is being propped up by the DUP this rings very true:

“…The UK is hopelessly divided. And yet not only have British leaders done nothing to try to mend that schism, they have repeatedly and consistently denied that it even exists. The country is coming together behind Brexit, says Theresa May, again and again, against all the evidence. This comes across as panglossian self-delusion because it’s plain to everyone else, inside and outside the UK, that it’s not true”.

For a successful negotiation it is imperative to know the desired endpoint and know at the outset what one wishes to achieve. Sadly this does not seem to be the case.

“…policy papers take an eternity to see the light of day, and when they do they are contradictory, implausible, short on detail, or just plain vacuous. Positions are taken, then reversed, then reasserted. Stakeholders cannot trust anything they are told because they are told very little and what little they are told is demonstrably false or contradicted by previous and subsequent statements”.


3 Know your negotiating partner.

The UK has been part of the EU (or previous incarnations) for over four decades and have many excellent people who know the EU intimately. However these have largely resigned or been ignored.

“…So how is it that the UK shows again and again that it doesn’t really understand the EU and even that it doesn’t have much interest in understanding the EU?”

Possibly the best answer to this has been given by Prof Nicholas Boyle
The problem with the English: England doesn’t want to be just another member of a team

” ‘The UK has had enough of experts’ we are told. The German car industry will ride to the rescue, we are told. We will have our cake and eat it, we are told. We can be in the Single Market and yet not in the Single Market, we are told”.

And possibly most worrying of all:

“The UK government seems to be dealing with a fantasy EU that resembles the caricature presented in British tabloids, not the real EU of which it has been a core member for over four decades”.

And some paragraphs in summary.

There has been a continual confrontational framing of the negotiations:

“Boris Johnson … has said ‘Nobody ever beats the EU in a negotiation’  … it’s odd that he worked so hard to put his country into a negotiation with the EU, and then to frame this negotiation in needlessly confrontational, zero sum terms, so that the UK can only win if the EU loses.”

Framing a problem in zero sum terms may appeal to your core base. The DUP are very adept at doing this in Northern Ireland (as indeed are SF) but ultimately it is a losing strategy and NI is rapidly falling further and further behind its southern neighbour. It is deeply worrying that this methodology is coming to England.

It didn’t have to be this way.

“…the EU’s default approach to negotiations is to find a way for both sides to win. This is the best guarantee of success. By spurning this approach from the outset, the UK has engineered its own probable defeat”.

“It is this, I think, that has most shocked and alienated the EU side. Cooperative, collegiate, consensus building is so baked into the way we work that it has become a reflex”.

He finishes with this depressing statement:

“There was a widespread assumption that the UK would implement the referendum result in its typically sober, intelligent way to minimise shock to itself and the rest of the EU and build a solid foundation for a mutually advantageous future relationship. The opposite has happened. This is simply shocking and will have a lasting impact on the country’s influence and reputation”.

Indeed, even if Brexit can be reversed the reputational damage will be long lasting. I had long thought that whilst the EU were playing chess the UK was playing draughts. But Kevin Breslin put it better “much of the time the UK is playing solitaire and still managing to loose”.


  1. Chris Kendall -

    Thanks Sean for your very sharp commentary adding real value to my contribution.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Thank you Chris for letting me use the piece. There are some valuable comments on the original post . I have long thought Brexit was equivalent to losing a major war and one of your commentators, Michael Reynolds, suggested that Leaving the EU may be the most self harming act ever undertaken in British economic history since the war against the English colonists in America. Then we lost a third of our trade and it took decades to recover the relationship.

      The other war analogy I think is right is that rather than comparison to the UK in 1940, Brexit is more like Germany in 1944. No matter how hard the führer beat the patriotic drum and the press propagandised for victory defeat was inevitable.

      1. Michael Reynolds -

        Many thanks Sean also for reference to my comment. There may be quite a number of parallels with the 1930s where the government of the day also failed to inform the people of the dangers after Nazi Germany renounced the arms limitation provisions of the Versailles settlement. But in this case it is not only the foreseeable economic consequences of the British government’s renunciation of the EU Treaties that pose massive problems, but the unforeseen consequences on the constitution. An excellent study has now been produced by the University of Oxford, “Constitution in Crisis,” which points to some of the difficulties and strains in the constitutional framework as discussed in the recent Putney Debates.
        It would be a great irony of history would it not if Britains’ renunciation of the EU Treaties led to the fragmentation of the UK. In any event it may lead to another irony, a federal constitution for the UK the very thing the malcontents object to about suspected EU policy.
        Other Studies point to serious issues over the Withdrawal Bill and the acquisition of executive powers not seen since the times of the absolutist Stuart monarchs.
        All in all we have the makings of an unnecessary self made crisis at a time when the world seems a more dangerous place and analogies to dictatorships of the 30s may seem as nothing when one considers the threats emanating from the Korean peninsular.

      2. Sean Danaher -

        Thanks Michael. It was pointed out that it was Ironic that the DUP which has very close links with the Orange order reversed one of the major constitution changes implemented by William of Orange (though he was was forced to do it by parliament)! I think also that the issue of Scottish Independence has not gone away. I think the Scots like the Irish are rather horrified by the way Brexit is going. It will be very interesting to see how the dynamics in Northern Ireland play out over the next 18 months; many are betting on a border on the Irish Sea despite DUP intransigence.

        I think this is the correct link to the recent Putney Debates and also there is a podcast?

      3. Michael Reynolds -

        Yes those are the links and I have been reading the book. I was due to attend the debates but was ill at the time.
        It looks like the real debate is just beginning…

      4. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

        I’m sure you are correct to say the issue of Scottish Independence has not gone away.

        All the vacuous pronouncements from the Brexiteers about sovereignty and self determination and future trade opportunities apply in spades to the Scottish relationship in the UK.

        On simple economic grounds alone the Scottish Independence option looks more rational daily. Add to this the possibility of shedding the overbearing political influence an unrepresentative Westminster government wields over what it seems to regard as a local government ‘region’ of ‘Greater England’ and to many Scots independence looks increasingly like a no-brainer.

        It looks a pretty sound option to some comers-in too. There is a resentment towards the English whose ‘Unionism’ is based on keeping their money at home whilst benefiting from the enhanced (ie surviving) social welfare benefits of health and elderly care provisions.

      5. Chris Kendall -

        Brexit will prove to be one of those pebbles thrown into the pool of history which will generate ripples for some time to come and who knows which shores they will eventually reach? And of course Brexit is in turn an unforeseen consequence of earlier pebbles, and so on and so on. Certainly it seems to me that Britain’s political system is reaching a point where something must give. It no longer seems fit for purpose, and both those pushing this change and those resisting it have no idea where it will end up, and how. So: interesting times, in the proper Chinese sense.

      6. Sean Danaher -

        I like the pebble analogy but Brexit seems more like a boulder than a pebble with possible nonlinear effects such as shock waves and solitons. David Davis is right about one thing, Brexit is far more complex than a moon landing. There was an opportunity about a hundred years ago for serious constitutional reform before Ireland broke away, but it seemed always to be too little too late for the Irish. The Tories were playing power games – getting rid of Ireland helped them have a easier majority in rUK. Then again the number of people there who would like to rejoin the UK is miniscule.

      7. Peter May -

        But Ireland chose to try to break away during the First World War and when Home Rule had already been agreed but suspended for the duration of the war. I think that was a cock-up, probably by both sides. (Incidentally I don’t twig what the constitutional change by William of Orange was that the DUP reversed – sorry).
        I certainly agree that Britain’s political system is broken. I also think that , for Brexit, the First World War analogy of Lions led by Donkeys is not far off the mark. It is difficult to imagine anyone with any responsibility for the wellbeing of his fellow citizen would invite us to consider a course for which there was purposely no planning…
        These people are our leaders and although almost every last one of them seems to have an Oxbridge education they are sociopathic romantics. Their obvious lack of empathy (which it seems some still lack – as the Conservative Assocation student in tails who wilfully burned a £20 note in front of a homeless man means they never consider putting themselves in the front line. They are spurred on by a media who have oh such similar backgrounds and views.
        However did we let it get so bad?

      8. Graham -

        I agree with much of this. However, to say our political system is “broken” implies that it was “whole” at some point in the past. Our system has never been anything other than a means by which an elite has retained power over the citizenry.

        Remarkably the “people” do have the power, but refuse to exercise it.

      9. Sean Danaher -

        Hi Peter
        sorry I should have made clear I was referring to a somewhat earlier period around the 1880’s when Charles Stuart Parnell headed the Home Rule League. There was always a feeling that any concessions were very hard fought and too little too late and that the Irish were being treated like second class citizens in their own country. It may well have been cock-up my father used to say that the English thought themselves the greatest people in the world, definitely God’s chosen people, and couldn’t understand why the Irish would want to break away even as second class citizens.

        The Irish have never thought themselves superior to the English but simply their equal. This belief in English exceptionalism still exists (among some of the English), often ironically most strongly among those who have least right to feel so, and may have been a major contribution towards Brexit. In the long term one consequence of Brexit may be the self-realisation that English exceptionalism is a myth.

        The Williamite war to a large extent was about the sovereignty of parliament at that time over the king. It seems that that parliamentary sovereignty is being challenged like never before in the past 300 years.

        The Oxbridge thing is interesting. I have known and worked with dozens of Oxbridge people but they have all been scientists engineers and medics and have been thoroughly competent, decent and grounded in the real world. Yet we have repulsive people like those in your £20 note story possibly destined for a career in politics.

        I don’t know how we let it let so bad but am looking forward to reading which may shed some light.

      10. Peter May -

        Your father was right in a way. Certain Englishman, but also I’d suggest Welshman, Scotsman and Irishman were extremely lucky to arrive into the upper echelons of an empire over which the sun never set – etc. Meanwhile others of all of those nations were leading lives of considerable hardship and penury. I do think people think those at the top are always English when they often aren’t! Wellington, Palmerston are two old examples. More recently Lloyd George, Douglas Home, Blair, even Fox and Gove. (Mind you the English can be blamed for sending the last three to Parliament!) I come more and more to the conclusion that English exceptionalism is today because some of the English have become so devoid of hope. The Scots and Irish and to some extent the Welsh can hang on to an individual and local identity, which is difficult for the English when there are around 55 million of them.
        All in all I agree with Graham “Our system has never been anything other than a means by which an elite has retained power over the citizenry.”
        I’m not sure about “the “people” do have the power, but refuse to exercise it.”
        Think that may need expansion…

        I fear the Brexit phenominon was a brief excercise of power – albeit in a thoughtlesss two fingered way.

      11. Sean Danaher -

        Indeed Peter
        things are always more complex than simple analyses and we are so genetically mixed in these islands that simple national stereotyping is silly. Regarding Wellington in his younger days he supposedly had such a strong Irish accent that his English troops had no idea what he was saying. I can well believe it as even 40 years ago accents were much stronger than they now seem to be and the first time I went to Barnsley I struggled to understand anything! Wellington also said “Being born in a stable does not make one a horse” in the house of commons when PM and challenged on being Irish. Edmund Burke (another prominent Irishman) retorted something like “but being born an idiot makes you always an idiot”. Wellington was a much better general than PM.

        I agree re Graham, hopefully he will clarify?

  2. Tony_B -

    Sean, to become PM May’s backers set her two absolute priorities; 1) to keep the Tory Party together and 2) do your best with Brexit for the Establishment to benefit from the chaos. Team May are pathological deceivers how can you negotiate with such a crew, particularly Boris. They don’t trust each other. It is laughable to think they know what Goodwill is, look at how they treat and regard ordinary Britons. In business to be successful you must have total trust in your team or at least key members. That’s what I found. When things go wrong you can sit down and plan a route out to remedy the situation.

    I note Will Hutton has written in The Observer today on May’s PRIME DIRECTIVE “to keep her party together”. This is all about them.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Indeed Tony agree.
      you also talk to people. When I was a member of our senior management group I never used an email or dictat when I could go and talk to people face to face. May’s refusal to address the European Parliament was very telling.

      And a good article by Will Hutton, thanks for the recommendation Indeed the Florence speech seemed to be for internal Tory party consumption and the right-wing media.

  3. Peter May -

    Interesting take by Simon Wren Lewis
    where he says that by confirming that there could be a transitional deal May hopes to dampen the resolve of the Irish government and the EU to make the border a sticking point in the negotiations.

    I can’t see it working, but it does ring true…

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Hi Peter
      yes I did see this even left a comment which hasn’t appeared yet! I agree it’s unlikely to work, though remaining in the Customs Union would be better for the UK and Ireland

  4. Ron Birrell -

    Never underestimate Tories. What they lack in intelligence and principle they make up for in low cunning. By not specifying what they want from negotiations, at the end of the process they will claim that what they get is ‘the best possible deal’, which of course will be true. It will be bad for all parts of the UK, but most people will swallow it – as long as the Tories can show that they stood up to ‘Johnnie Foreigner’.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Little if any further forward with May’s Florence speech, which seemed entirely for internal Tory party and domestic right-wing press consumption. They seem to be either deliberately setting out to fail or so wrapped up in their own bubble they can not see how untenable their position is. I’m standing up to ‘Johnnie Foreigner’ will work with the English but will hack off the Scots and will cause unknown damage in Northern Ireland. The Flexit people seem to be in near despair at the naivety of the tactics used by the Tories.

      Richard North thinks the Tories are deliberately setting out to fail

      Mixing metaphors outrageously, the Irish question is also the canary down the mine, the ultimate test of whether the Phase One issues can be resolved.

      And it fruitless complaining that the EU has set an impossible test to pass. The moment Mrs May decided that the UK was going to leave the Single Market, she created the problem of turning a land border into one of the EU’s external borders. As its creator, it is for Mrs May to resolve the problem.

      The fact that the differences are irreconcilable, though, explains why the Prime Minister is being driven inexorably towards a “no deal” scenario. But, unable or unwilling to admit to problems of her own making, she seems intent on blame transference, putting the EU in the frame.

      This gives her the opportunity of pulling the plug on the negotiations on Wednesday week, when she addresses conference. But there are persistent rumours that she may move even earlier than that, setting in train the moves necessary to secure and early departure by the end of this week.

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