Brexit Negotiations: What Went Wrong?


I think we can all agree that the Brexit negotiations since March 2017 have been nothing short of a miserable failure. The process was erratic, cloudy, and even maddening, with new plot-twists emerging every time you viewed BBC News. But aside from theatrical media coverage, negotiating Brexit wasn’t going to be an easy feat, given the power imbalances’ between the UK and the EU.

It’s no surprise that after all this, the UK ended up with a botched Brexit Deal that united the whole country in their passionate displeasure towards it. This article will explore why exactly the process of negotiations proved unfruitful and what the UK could have done better, in light of the forgotten “art of negotiation”.

Article 50 was invoked before the government had even decided what type of Brexit they would pursue. Without much clarity or consensus in parliament and government alike, the process was bound to be messy. Internal divisions create competing visions, which means negotiators on both sides were unclear on what ends were being sought. Secondly, Theresa May’s style indicated an unfounded level of optimism in her expectation for the EU to compromise, which clearly didn’t happen. This was a flawed strategy, because the EU had already made their red lines clear from the onset. A more appropriate strategy would therefore have been to not persist at making them compromise, but instead adopt a strategy that either accepted them fully, or rejected them outright. How would the latter work? Simply, by refusing to negotiate, and happily walking-out. Yet what would this achieve, other than failure and a no-deal? The answer to this question lies in “brinkmanship”, a forgotten negotiation strategy. “brinkmanship”, is when a nation that is in some form of conflict with another power, uses its resolve to outmanoeuvre the other power. Think of ‘resolve’ as a variable that measures how much risk a nation is willing to take towards realising the worst-case scenario that both parties wish to avoid at any cost. In negotiations between nuclear-armed nations on the brink of war, this could be mutually assured destruction. In this case, the worst-case scenario is to crash out of the EU without a deal, for both parties alike. The country that shows more resolve towards accepting the worst-case scenario is the country that prevails in the ‘Brinkmanship‘ battle. What would this look like with negotiations between the EU and the UK?

Let’s suppose that Britain did walk out of the negotiations, and decided to pursue a “managed no-deal”. This would have signalled to the EU that Britain indeed has plenty of resolve and will not acquiesce. The EU, being on the verge of recession, would have also taken the threat of a no-deal Brexit very seriously, as multiple economies would be affected, strengthening our hand at the ensuing battle of “brinkmanship”. The government would have gained a strategic bargaining chip in the process, especially because there would be no Brexit backstop for Northern Ireland, creating a sense of alarm in the EU that would also pressure them into making accommodations. More importantly, this would have also given the UK government more time to prepare for a no-deal Brexit. Yes, this tactic certainly doesn’t come without risk, but nothing good comes without risk either. However, even after having adopted a spirit of compromise, the UK is left with nothing but more chaos, and yes, an increased chance of a no-deal Brexit without the slightest of preparation. In closing, I believe a reasonable question that I can’t help but ask is could the UK, as the 5th largest economy in the world, have played its cards any better?


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