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Theresa May has clearly stated that she would prefer a no deal with the EU on Brexit over a bad deal for Britain:

And while I am confident that this scenario need never arise – while I am sure a positive agreement can be reached – I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,

Ms May has reiterated this again:

British prime minister Theresa May’s repeated claim on Brexit that “no deal is better than a bad deal” has been strongly rejected by Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan.

Ms May was speaking after European Union leaders on Saturday unanimously approved tough guidelines for negotiations on Brexit

From the UK government's perspective, what would constitute a bad deal on Brexit?

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    As far as I understand, the UK wants to keep access to the Free Market, but limit Freedom of Movement for EU citizens. Anything less is probably a "bad" deal. – JonathanReez May 1 '17 at 15:27
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    May presumably views her mandate as requiring her to implement the will of the people as expressed in the referendum (especially since she supported Remain). This would have to include an element of determining what the will of the people actually is. For example, how important an issue was immigration, and would a Norway-style relationship with the EU, retaining participation in the EEA freedom of movement scheme, be "bad"? So I wonder whether you're asking about what the government itself views as good or bad, or about what can be said objectively to be good or bad, if anything. – phoog May 1 '17 at 15:28
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    @phoog I'm asking from the perspective of the UK government as noted in the question. – Bradley Wilson May 1 '17 at 15:32
  • I'm not sure this is answerable, except in a theoretical sense, since the government has refused to divulge much detail at all about how they intend to pursue Brexit. – Matt Thrower May 4 '17 at 11:41
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    @MattThrower then that would be an answer if you can back it up with verifiable facts/statements and then it may be answered at a later date, it doesn't need to be answered right now, just when the information is available hence the question. – Bradley Wilson May 4 '17 at 12:10
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At the moment, no-one knows. And what little we do know is in a state of flux due to the UK Parliamentary elections. As manifestos are published, the definition of a "bad deal" may change.

The only clear indicators that we have are from a speech given by Prime Minister Theresa May in January. In this speech, she set out 12 objectives for the UK in the upcoming negotiations. They were:

  1. Certainty
  2. Control of our own laws
  3. Strengthen the Union
  4. Maintain the Common Travel Area with Ireland
  5. Control of immigration
  6. Rights for EU nationals in Britain, and British nationals in the EU
  7. Protect workers' rights
  8. Free trade with European markets
  9. New trade agreements with other countries
  10. The best place for science and innovation
  11. Cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism
  12. A smooth, orderly Brexit

However, there are several problems in defining a "bad deal" against these terms.

Firstly, some of them (see points 7, 11 and 12 for example) are either wooly or double-edged. We cannot make a judgement as to what settlement in these areas would constitue "bad".

Second, other statements from the government suggest that some of these goals are more important than others. Control of immigration, for instance is seen as a key driver behind the vote to leave and thus essential for getting a "good" Brexit. New trade deals with other countries is also seen as a critical path to avoiding economic damage from the divorce.

Third, many of these goals appear to be incompatible with each other, if statements from the EU are to be taken at face value. The commission has said that the core principles of the union - free movement of goods, capital, people and services - are indivisible. That would make points 5 and 8 mutually exclusive.

These contradictions also exist in purely practical terms. For instance it would seem almost impossible to achieve any meaningful control of immigration while still achieving outcomes 3 and 4 on the list. There has been no suggestion of a policy that could bridge this gap.

Such omissions and contradictions are a key reason as to why there is a common belief that no-one inside or outside government has a real working definition of what constitutes a "bad" brexit. It is possible no such definition, and no "red lines" in negotiation actually exist.

This, of course, makes Theresa May's statement that no deal is better than a bad deal yet another example of the confusions and contradictions currently surrounding the process. Indeed, crashing out in the event of a bad deal would in fact seem to contravene goal 12 on her list.

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Labour defined a successful Brexit as one that retains free trade and access to the single market. Since this has already been ruled out by the UK government, all the available options could now be considered a "bad deal".

Jean-Claude Juncker, EU commission president, told Teresa May that it would be impossible to have a successful Brexit.

His reasoning being that whatever deal the UK gets must necessarily be inferior to membership of the EU, and thus by any measure cannot be considered successful. If that constitutes a "bad deal" or merely the expected worse one than the UK has is subjective.

  • America and China are genuine economic superpowers, with far better economic performance than the EU, so the EU's self-deluding claims that it represents some sort of economic paradise and that you cannot find a more successful economic system anywhere outside its borders are laughable. – Ed999 Nov 18 '18 at 4:19
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    @Ed999 You are going to say post-Brexit UK's economy will be superior to EU and could compete with the US or China perhaps? Your thoughts are laughable indeed... – Alone Programmer Nov 28 '18 at 19:55
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    @Ed999 Do you suggest we apply to become a state of the US, or a province of China? The EU could deal with the US and China as equals, because the EU does genuinely have that economic power. The UK on its own does not have the economic power to do anything more than take orders from the US. – Graham Dec 3 '18 at 17:10
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From the UK government's perspective, what would constitute a bad deal on Brexit?

In hindsight (18 months after this question was asked), it is striking that May's government has refused to define the kind of deal it was pursuing during a very long time; the EU itself was puzzled and asked for clarity many times. One might have imagined (optimistically) that the subtle diplomatic game of such high impact negotiations was requiring some level of opacity on the UK strategy. But at the end of the process, it is now completely apparent that this was mostly a way to avoid displeasing anybody for as long as possible, in order to provide the country at the end with a reasonable deal that nobody could afford to refuse.

In other words, May's strategy has been mostly driven by the need to compromise between the opposing tendencies of her own party, that is between the so-called "hard" and "soft" Brexit options. Her goal was certainly to propose a deal which satisfies both sides so that it could get approved, and to some extent could reconcile the party if not the country. That would have been the definition of success for her on Brexit. By contrast, one might extrapolate that a bad deal (for her) would be one which does not reconcile the party, let alone the country.

Thus one might argue that the UK strategy was almost solely targeted towards domestic politics (perhaps to the expense of long term national interest). In this perspective, it might be worth revisiting statements such as "No deal is better than a bad deal", which might have been a simple rhetorical maneuver, meant to keep opposite views on Brexit onboard with the government strategy. This interpretation would imply that there was never any actual technical content behind what constitutes a bad or a good deal for May's government: a good deal is simply a deal which succeeds, and a bad deal a deal which fails. This hypothesis of the "ghost target deal" can also explain why "red lines" have been easily abandoned along the process.

To conclude, one may reflect on the irony of May's early statement "Brexit means Brexit", as if Brexit was so obvious that it didn't deserve a definition. At the end of the process two years later, the UK still hasn't agreed on one.

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