When the UK voted for Brexit, then it was generally expected that the pro-Brexit politicians had some idea of how negotiations for a Brexit deal would fare and what the outcome would be.

Now years later, we are at a point where May's got one last deal to offer that very few in the UK like and if it's not accepted, nobody knows what is going to happen.

How did it come to this? Why have the negotiations been so difficult?

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    Can you be more specific about "proper Brexit deal"? It is not clear. Also, try to limit your post to a single question, if possible, otherwise it might get closed as being too broad.
    – Alexei
    Commented Nov 25, 2018 at 12:17
  • 1
    Comments deleted. Comments should be used to discuss the question itself. They are not for discussing the subject matter of the question or for answering it. For more information on how to correctly use the commenting privilege, please read the help article about it.
    – Philipp
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 14:46
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    "...it was generally expected that the pro-Brexit politicians had some idea of how negotiations for a Brexit deal would fare..." [citation needed] Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 11:41
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    I entirely reject the premise of this question.
    – Strawberry
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 11:21
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    @Alexei 'be more specific about [what is meant by a] "proper Brexit deal"? It is not clear' also pretty much answers the question Commented Dec 1, 2018 at 15:07

13 Answers 13


it was generally expected that the pro-Brexit politicians had some idea of how negotiations for a Brexit deal would fare and what the outcome would be.

Who by?

Everyone knew the lead Brexit team (Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg et al) had no plans for how this would work. They didn't even have any grasp of how much things currently cost, never mind how anything would be affected in future.

The assumption by Brexiteers was entirely that Europe would have more to lose by losing UK trade than the UK would. So Brexit supporters claimed that the EU would grant us special deals, because they couldn't afford to lose that trade. The EU said that this was never going to happen, and a year later, the UK have found that the EU meant what they said. Theresa May might genuinely have the best deal available; the EU has no reason to compromise, because the UK has nothing they want that badly. For a few examples...

The most significant trade for the UK is in banking services, and Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam will be more than happy to take that off us. Unlike heavy industry, office-based jobs like banking can be moved almost overnight: the physical infrastructure required is minimal; people at more senior levels in banking are already happy to move anywhere in the world; and for those who aren't, there's no shortage of "talent" in every country in the world to step in.

Issues with the Irish border and the Good Friday Agreement were widely reported in the press. The Brexit team said that it wouldn't come to this, but presented no ideas for how it would work. There still isn't a good solution.

The UK losing all science backing from the EU, as one of the main beneficiaries of research funding, was widely reported too. That's already happened, even before Brexit. So too was the lack of key medical facilities, in particular radioisotopes for cancer treatment, and there's still no news about that as far as I know.

The UK civil service itself fact-checked the claims of Brexiteers and the effects of Brexit, and showed that all these were inevitable consequences. Remainers checked too, of course, but the key part is that government departments checked on the impact on their own systems and reported the problems they'd face. No Brexiteer presented plans for them at the time. So no, I'm afraid you're starting from a false premise that anyone who looked at the evidence could have thought the Brexit faction had any clue as to how these issues would be resolved. By definition, if you informed yourself then you could not think this was the case.

I wouldn't dispute that people might have thought independence outweighed the impact of all these issues. You might guess that I'd disagree, of course, but it's a valid opinion and I respect the integrity of people with that opinion. Thinking that the Brexiteers had solutions though, simply because you can't imagine politicians causing this level of chaos to further their own careers - that's just wishful thinking.

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    @gerrit It's a bit more nuanced. Both sides lose when trade is restricted. This means that both sides would profit if they could get an agreement similar to EFTA, for example. Economically, it is in the interest of both sides to resolve the issue quickly, reasonably and with enduring flexibility in international trade and migration. Politically, the EU doesn't want anyone to move from being in the EU to being in EFTA; it doesn't want a precedent to show "no harm done" that might encourage others to leave. Free trade means both parties of trade are better off; political power changes that.
    – Luaan
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 11:46
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    the EU doesn't want anyone to move from being in the EU to being in EFTA, source? AFAIK EFTA is on the table as far as the EU is concerned, of course including signing up to the Four Freedoms.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 11:48
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    @gerrit "The day after we vote to leave we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want." - Michael Gove "Getting out of the EU can be quick and easy – the UK holds most of the cards in any negotiation." - John Redwood "The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history." - Liam Fox .... I could go on
    – Tim B
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 15:32
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    @Taladris Not really. Whilst Farage was rather visible, he and his party had very little support from the public, as demonstrated by their continual failures at elections. The BBC regularly brought him onto talking-heads shows to stir things up, but they made the mistake of giving him a platform utterly out of proportion to what his support justified. From the outside, it looked like Farage was important; whereas in fact he was a nutjob in a nutjob single-issue party with little support. He never would have had to do anything with it, because he would never have had any power.
    – Graham
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 8:23
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    @Taladris There's a strong argument that the lead Brexiteers were in the same position, of course. Farage knew he could say anything, because he would never get to power. But there's an opinion that the Brexiteers also thought they could promise anything they liked, because the British public would never vote for Brexit. They failed to recognize the power of the media to mobilise anti-EU sentiment, parts of the media being openly racist, and the prospect of this being a protest vote against a highly unpopular Prime Minister. So they won without wanting to.
    – Graham
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 8:30

Dani Rodrik's trilemma states that you can pick any two of three from "nation state", "prosperity" and "democracy". The argument goes that if you want prosperity then you must have free trade (hermit kingdoms are always poor). Trade requires common standards, so either you merge your democratic nation states into something bigger like the EU, or you have laws imposed by unelected bureaucrats in trade treaties. The first choice loses the nation state, the second loses democracy.

The UK wants to have all three; it can't get its collective head around the idea that its going to have to compromise on one of them. Hence

  • "take back control": calls for democracy plus nation state, but implicitly sacrifices prosperity.

  • "negotiate lots of free trade deals": calls for prosperity plus nation state, but ignores the loss of democratic accountability in the trade deals (see the Trans-Pacific Partnership for an example of how big trade deals work to undermine democracy).

The UK's failure to understand the inevitability of compromise on at least one of these dimensions, regardless of whether it is in or out of the EU, has made it very difficult for the EU to negotiate with the UK.

Edit: responses to comments

  • The "Singapore option" is no more democratic than any other trade agreement. At present the EU (including the UK) bans beef treated with hormones. If the UK abolished trade restrictions then it would also have to abolish that ban regardless of what the British people might want. The same goes for anything else that the UK population might prefer to ban or restrict. Singapore famously used to ban chewing gum, but in 2004 this was relaxed to allow "medicinal gum" (shades of "medicinal cannabis") under pressure from US trade negotiators, who in turn were lobbied by the Wm. Wriggly Junior Company, a major US chewing gum maker.

  • The USA is a good example of this principle. When it was formed the founding states could have decided to become separate nations, but instead they agreed to pool their sovereignty to form a single nation that then became the world's largest free trade area. This was the foundation of the US wealth. These days the USA is big enough to dictate terms to most countries, but even then the TPP negotiations showed up the way that democracy suffers in trade negotiations.

  • Voting on trade agreements doesn't help much. The bureaucrats (and friendly lobbyists) spend years secretly negotiating and compromising, and finally produce an agreement hundreds or even thousands of pages long. This is plonked in front of the legislature who then have to vote to take it or leave it, often without enough time or resources to really understand what they are voting on. At the same time other lobbyists start spreading misinformation about what the deal contains in an attempt to influence public opinion. So the resulting decision, while "democratic", is not much better than tossing a coin.

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    Comments deleted. Please note that Stack Exchange is not a platform for political debate. The goal of this website is to inform about politics, not debate them.
    – Philipp
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 15:39
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    "Merge your democratic nation states into something bigger" describes the United States perfectly, and might go a large distance into explaining why it is so economically successful: it made that necessary compromise early and has stuck to it!
    – Michael W.
    Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 23:40
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    That is a false trilemma. Just go straight to anarcho-capitalism and obtain prosperity while discarding 'nation-state' and 'democracy'.
    – Chloe
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 1:38
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    The trilemma is just one guys nonsensical opinion, and the entire answer is based on it.
    – Davor
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 10:59
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    @Davor Just one guy Then General Relativity is just one guy's idea of space-time. In fact, the idea is widely known and has significant support as a model that well describes economic reality. If you don't like it, there are plenty of other models you might prefer. Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 13:15

Even if both parties had been on the same page, the scope and the far-reaching impact of the withdrawal agreement make such a deal extremely complex to negotiate. Additionally it was the very first time that the EU article 50 was used, so there was no precedent to rely on.

Entering negotiations of any nature requires both parties to have a clear understanding of what they want themselves, what the other party wants, which points are open for negotiation/compromise, and how to reach their goals (in particular which leverage they have). The UK side was seriously unprepared, and even now at the end of the process there is still no clarity about what the UK wants from the deal, since May's deal is rejected by UK political leaders across the board.

[edited] Also at the start the UK side was clearly expecting that the EU would be quite flexible in order to maintain a trade relation which benefits both sides. This was a mistake: first because there are many legal and technical constraints at play, but also more fundamentally because the EU cannot offer an advantageous deal to a non-member without jeopardizing its own existence.

The main issue was (and still is) the absence of consensus in the UK on the trade off between sovereignty and the advantages of the customs union.

  • 1
    I’m unconvinced by your claim that the EU can’t show flexibility- the fact that we have a deal at all shows that something has come together. Perhaps the U.K. was expecting more flexibility, but they certainly haven’t been completely inflexible.
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 25, 2018 at 19:17
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    @Tim I agree, I'll edit my phrasing. I meant that at the beginning the UK seemed to expect a trade agreement which would be economically almost equivalent to being a member, something that the EU cannot accept.
    – Erwan
    Commented Nov 25, 2018 at 19:55
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    +1 for "Even if both parties had been on the same page". There seems to have been a genuine lack of understanding on the brexiteers side about the EU (I give you David Davis' assertation we could approach individual countries rather than having to go via the EU), as well as several different warring factions competing for "their" vision of Brexit.
    – Miller86
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 13:17
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    this is the most important part imo: "but also more fundamentally because the EU cannot offer an advantageous deal to a non-member without jeopardizing its own existence."
    – Leon
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 8:32
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    @Tim One of the main reasons the EU was never going to be particularly flexible is that there are strong anti-EU factions in a number of other EU countries. If the UK was seen to get "a good deal" onleaving the EU, then those factions would have pressed more heavily for their own "leave" referenda and there would have been a real danger of breakup of the whole EU.
    – TripeHound
    Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 13:47

Because the Brexiteers had no idea what they wanted.

Individual Brexiteers - they knew what they wanted. But Brexiteers as a whole, they all knew they didn't like the EU but they all had different reasons why and different goals for afterwards.

Just look at the various statements from various people in the run up to the referendum. Here's a random selection:

  • No-one is talking about leaving the single market
  • Norway option
  • Canada option
  • Hard brexit
  • No more immigration
  • No more ECJ
  • No more Human Rights Act (ignoring the fact that's not even anything to do with the EU)
  • £350M to NHS
  • NI Border won't be a problem
  • Gibraltar will be fine
  • etc.

They would all say whatever the audience listening at the time wanted to hear with no consideration for the fact that most of those options above are mutually contradictory.

You can't stay in the single market without free movement. You can't give £350M to the NHS that doesn't exist, etc.

Any attempts to point this out were drowned out by the noise or shouted down as "project fear".

So now you have a narrow win for leave when the true result are (all percentages made up just like Brexiteer facts):

48% remain 10% hard brexit 10% norway 20% stop immigration 10% extra money to NHS 2% protest vote

Then each one of these mutually incompatible Brexiteer factions claimed the entire 52% as their victory.

And for no plausible reason beyond maybe trying to keep her government together no matter the cost to the country May threw in her lot with the Hard Brexiteers and they tried to act as though their 10% was actually 52%.

Until they actually tried to pass anything and discovered .... oh wait, only 10% of people actually support us.

And at no point was there actually any attempt to reach out and find a solution that works for everyone rather than allowing one extremist faction to trample all over everything.

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    I find the point you make about "48% remain 10% hard brexit 10% norway 20% stop immigration 10% extra money to NHS 2% protest vote" brilliant
    – M3RS
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 10:15
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    @M3RS If the vote had been 3 options: remain, soft brexit, hard brexit then I have no evidence to support this but I find it very unlikely either brexit option would have come out on top as the two brexit options would have cannibalized each other much more than anyone from remain switched to soft brexit.
    – Tim B
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 10:57
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    @TimB A multi-option referendum need not have been FPTP. A Condorcet referendum could have taken in ranked ballots and produced a ranked collective preference between options without any spoiler effect.
    – smithkm
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 0:03
  • @smithkm True. A lot of suggestions for a 3rd referendum (people's vote) have suggested single transferable vote between 3 options for example.
    – Tim B
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 9:36
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    "No more Human Rights Act (ignoring the fact that's not even anything to do with the EU)" ... the HRA is mandated by the treaties of the Council of Europe, specifically the European Convention on Human Rights. The EU has, since 2009, been negotiating with a view to becoming itself a signatory of this treaty, and this is expected to happen at some point in the future. Although it is not part of any written regulation, it is generally held to be a requirement of EU membership to be a signatory of the ECHR. While the EU didn't create the ECHR, the two are linked at many levels.
    – Jules
    Commented Dec 1, 2018 at 4:50

The EU thought that the UK wasn't "serious" to start with. They couldn't understand why the UK would want to leave the relationship.

The government carrying out the negotiations had many, often contradictory aims:

  • keep free trade with no tariffs or barriers with the EU
  • stop or severely curtail freedom of movement for EU citizens in the UK
  • keep the same freedom of movement for UK citizens in the EU
  • stop any influence from the European Courts
  • keep access for UK scientific research programs in EU science
  • remove access for all fisheries in UK waters to EU boats
  • retain the Good Friday agreement without renegotiation with Eire
  • retain current arrangements with Gibraltar
  • retain UK air traffic including Heathrow as a hub Airport
  • transfer export quotas derived from EU treaties to the UK
  • stop all contributions to EU funds

At the same time, there had to be little or no impact (or improved states) for

  • UK financial services industry
  • The NHS
  • Farming
  • Education
  • UK science research
  • UK manufacturing

The negotiations for Canada's deal with the EU (CETA) took 6 or 7 years and was much less ambitious in scope.

Why did the UK ever believe it would work? They thought that as the worlds 5th largest economy (at the time, now 6th largest) the EU would cut them a lot of slack, because the EU would stand to lose a lot in the event of a "no deal" or complete breakdown in relations.

David Davis stated in a speech at the time:

We currently import £59 billion more from Europe than we export. After Brexit we would be Europe’s largest export market, worth £289 billion in 2014, larger than China.

To see our importance to Europe, you only need to walk down the street. More than a quarter of all cars sold in this country are Mercedes, BMWs, Audis or VWs. And those are just some of the German brands. We are Europe’s second largest, and fastest growing car market.

This negotiation will primarily be about politics, and our European colleagues pre-eminently concerned about their national interest.

We are too valuable a market for Europe to shut off.

Someone asked about FoM after Brexit being promised. The pre-referendum assumption was:

The UK is outside the Schengen area of border-free travel that is at the core of the European Union, so we have to show passports on arrival in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and so on. The same would apply after a Brexit.

This is just an article in The Independent, but I think it shows what was being said at the time.

So that's "no change" - the same FoM inside the Schengen area for tourists I couldn't find any reference to an absolute freedom for business purposes.

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    Do you have a source supporting the claim that the UK sought to maintain freedom of movement for UK citizens in the EU (while curtailing it for EU citizens in the UK)? I do not recall seeing that.
    – phoog
    Commented Nov 25, 2018 at 19:12
  • 3
    Comments deleted. Comments should be used to discuss the answer itself. They are not for discussing the subject matter of the question. For more information on how to correctly use the commenting privilege, please read the help article about it.
    – Philipp
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 14:49
  • David Davis has repeated the claims made above recently (Feb 2020) He isn't directly involved in the negotiations now
    – Vorsprung
    Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 12:13

The UK has voted to leave the EU by a razor-thin margin of 3.78%. If the referendum was properly organised, it would've had a larger threshold to leave the EU, as doing so is a major constitutional change affecting many generations to come. This resulted in a situation where the government felt obligated to leave the EU, but didn't have a strong enough mandate to do so, as evidenced by the weak results of the Conservative party in the post-Brexit general election. To make things even worse, the Conservative party never really wanted to leave the EU in the first place - David Cameron originally planned it as a stunt to consolidate his power and Theresa May was a Remain supporter up until the referendum results were announced. And since they never wanted to leave the Union in the first place, there wasn't ever a consistent plan on how to so, so the UK was forced to make it up as they go.

Looking at the other side of the negotiating table you see the EU, which has absolutely zero incentive to provide the UK with a good deal. In fact, they have every incentive to see the UK crash and burn out of the Union, as this would significantly deter other member states from attempting to leave in the future. So the only options offered by the EU were to take a Norway-styled deal (losing all voting rights while still following all the rules) or to take no deal at all.

The above facts were absolutely clear to everyone from the very beginning, which is why the entire negotiations process was a farce. The EU did not bulge an inch from its original position while the UK government was pretending it could either sway the EU into submission or just leave the EU without significant economic consequences. Which brings us to the most important point - there wasn't any real negotiation in the first place between the UK and the EU. It was all just a show, attempting to convince the UK voters that their government has tried their best and secured the best possible deal. If May's spectacle works, the British Parliament would vote on the "final" deal on December 10th and the UK would stay in the Union at least until the end of 2020. If she failed, the UK would leave the Union in less than six months time.

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    This is by far the best answer. Especially "deter other member states from attempting to leave in the future" Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 14:58
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    +1 but I don't think “every incentive to see the UK crash and burn out of the Union” is exactly right. It would have adverse consequences on the EU and be especially difficult to a few member states starting with Ireland. That's why a Norway-style agreement with some adjustments is still on the table. But it's true the EU has no incentive to go out of its way to make leaving painless and certainly does not want non-members to be in a better position than members.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 15:18

The key to understanding the failure is to look at the BATNA ("Best alternative to a negotiated agreement"). For each side, what happens if they walk away from the negotiations? What does "no deal" look like?

There are some downsides to the EU of "no deal" - disruption of access to UK markets, disruption to EU nationals in the UK, disruption of the Irish border, and loss of payments from the UK.

The downsides to the UK are potentially much more serious: disruption of cross-channel freight traffic impacts the supply of food and medicine to the UK, disruption to the Irish border breaches an entirely different international agreement with Ireland and may result in a breakdown of public order again, and there are a number of businesses which are already relocating fully or partially out of the UK to avoid disruption or uncertainty.

Now, before the article 50 notice was made, this wasn't so much of a problem, because the BATNA would have been the status quo of remaining in the EU. However, at the time of making the notice, there was no realistic negotiation position being put forward by the UK (indeed, no clear strategy at all!) Making the notice made our negotiating position much weaker immediately. It's like jumping out of a plane and then negotiating to purchase a parachute.

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    And disruption for UK nationals in the EU. There are more than one million of us, depending where you ask. We didn't get a vote.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 8:20
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    @RedSonja Some of us did. Most of the rest do have the option to become citizens of the countries where they live. (Those that move from country to country every few years don't; those that plan to return to the UK when they retire may not.) Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 11:05
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    Indeed. After I was disenfranchised I took up German citizenship.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 12:41
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    @MarkBooth that question is the subject of ongoing legal action, the government does not admit that it can be retracted at all and it's not clear whether such a retraction could be purely unilateral. If it's bilateral I would expect there to be consequences - at the very least an agreement not to do it again for some years.
    – pjc50
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 17:09
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    @Mark The british coauthor (who was the second person you're talking about?) who is obviously not exactly impartial on the whole thing says it's unilaterally revokable. The EU parliament has commissioned an analysis on its own which arrives at a much more ambiguous conclusion. In any case this is much more of a political problem than a legal one. That alone makes it very unlikely that the UK would just unilaterally revoke article 50 and just decide to go on as if nothing happened - there's more realistic solutions there.
    – Voo
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 21:58

First, poor negotiations by David Davis, who went into negotiations totally unprepared and with apparently no idea how the EU works - offering exclusive trade deals to Germany and France, which these countries legally couldn't accept (and practically wouldn't have been willing to accept).

Second, a complete failure to understand that the EU would negotiate as hard as possible for the benefit of all of its members - of which the UK wouldn't be one. In any negotiations, you need to know what you want, and what the other side wants, and where there are conflicts, and how you would convince the other side to give you what you want, and there was a total failure to do this. If the EU was more strict and less willing to concede points than the UK anticipated, that probably came as a surprise to UK negotiators, but it shouldn't have.

The problem with the Irish border was probably unforeseen. It wasn't unforseeable obviously, but it's one of those things that are much more obvious in hindsight. (For me living in the south of England. For people in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland it was very foreseeable).

To a large degree, there were people who claimed loudly and still claim that negotiations would be a piece of cake, but most of them I assume were lying to themselves, to the public, or both. Either for reasons of promoting themselves (Johnson), or because they just wanted to leave the EU at any cost (Farage and Rees-Mogg).

PS. Read in a (not very reputable) newspaper this morning that "sources close to senior cabinet ministers" believe that the EU will "blink". I don't know how the brains of these people work.

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    The problem with the Irish border was widely foreseen, especially in NI, but was derided by Brexit supporters as not being a problem. Just one thing they were wrong about, of course.
    – Graham
    Commented Nov 25, 2018 at 20:19
  • I actually didn’t hear about it for a long time. I heard interesting bits like no airplanes from EU/U.K. legally allowed to land in the U.K./EU in case there is no deal. Heaven knows how much we’ve never thought of.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 15:19
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    @gnasher729: The UK will be free to choose whether it allows airplanes from EU countries; that's a sovereign decision. The EU however has established procedures for carriers in member states, and other procedures for non-member states. UK carriers will be based in a non-EU state, that's pretty much the definition of Brexit. Barring a specific agreement, they are not flying into the EU.
    – MSalters
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 22:20
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    The problem of NI was simply ignored (as usual) by London. As was Scotland. Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 6:36

When the UK voted for Brexit,

Without a clear definition of what Brexit meant.

The vote presented no plan, no treaty, no aim, no set of conditions required to be met.

No plan for Brexit existed before the vote. People voted to take a leap into the dark and hope it worked out.

And that's what they got !

then it was generally expected that the pro-Brexit politicians had some idea of how negotiations for a Brexit deal would fare and what the outcome would be.

I have no idea who this "generally" is, but the pro-Brexit camp itself is not a single group with a unified aim. Even within pro-Brexit they had no idea how to do this.

The pro-Brexit camp then (and now) continue to argue they can ignore legally binding obligations to the EU, which is pure fantasy. If that's your negotiating position, then you aren't making a negotiation, you're simply running away.

Now years later, we are at a point where May's got one last deal to offer that very few in the UK like

Business like it more than No-deal Brexit.

And no pro-Brexit group has offered a viable alternative.

What seems extraordinary is that people in the UK actually believe that the EU (a much larger trading block) can be dictated to by the UK. That was always a fantasy. The EU are negotiating from a position of absolute strength because the UK wants access to EU markets and the EU always had all the aces in this card game in that sense.

The Brexit lie was based on the nonsensical idea that the EU needed the UK more than the UK needs the EU. That will always be false. Even outside the EU, the UK still needs the EU and cannot possibly dictate to it.

And once the UK declared it was leaving, it lost all political power inside the EU. No one inside the EU cared what the UK wanted at that point. Inside the EU the UK had more power politically than outside.

The major stumbling block was this very problem.

The UK never had an internally united set of goals to negotiate about. When the UK went to negotiate it presented ideas which were only politically acceptable to groups in the UK. Almost none of it's first one and half year's worth of ideas were ever going to be acceptable to the EU, as they amounted to requiring the EU to grant access to markets without any payback for the EU. The early proposals, based on political expedience at home, were just wasted time. UK proposals shifted all over the place with arbitrary "red lines" that had nothing to do with realistic negotiation.

On the other hand the EU position has hardly changed at all (negotiating from strength lets you do this). The EU has been consistent. The UK has not.

and if it's not accepted, nobody knows what is going to happen.

No Deal Brexit is what will happen. The EU has stated clearly and repeatedly that it won't renegotiate. They can do this because, while no Deal Brexit is inconvenient in the short term, the EU is big enough to cope. The UK leaves ? Fine. The rest of the EU will happily function without it.

Also bare in mind that the EU at this stage regard the UK as a bit of a nuisance politically. I doubt the EU would take the UK back. Update : Since this was written the ECJ (dang lawyers) has ruled that the UK can unilaterally undo Brexit and return to it's status as a full member of the EU if it does so before a Brexit agreement is passed. However that does not mean the UK hasn't generated a lot of anger from EU countries over Brexit, so politically the UK will have a lot of work to do to regain respect if it abandons Brexit.

So again the EU position is fine with No Deal. It's not ideal, but it's better than more uncertainty.

The UK has no strategy for what happens if they reject the current deal. This is consistent with the UK's position all along : no consistent strategy or goals.

The default position is basically that WTO rules would apply if there is a No Deal scenario. WTO rules are, quite simply, a nightmare. They offer nothing more than a slightly better than "every man for himself" set of trade rules. And the US under Trump would throw even those rules away (and is actively trying to). So the prospects for WTO trading are not good.

How did it come to this? Why have the negotiations been so difficult?

The UK never had an internally agreed single set of goals.

It's like having a divorce and then starting arguments about who gets the dog, cat, kids, money, property, etc. The UK's only stated goal when it started was to leave the EU. It has never been able to present a unified position. Well in any divorce if you come to the table with no plan or goals other than leave, that's all you get. You won't get any of the good stuff.

Very early on (essentially from day one) the EU was more united in it's position on Brexit than I can ever recall it being on any other subject. The EU hasn't had internal arguments at all about how to handle Brexit. So the EU always had a well defined set of goals and total internal unity.

Disunity and vague conflicting goals got the UK to this point.

Frankly I think May has done well to salvage what she has out of this mess.

  • When does any democratic country ever "present a unified position"?
    – Dughall
    Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 22:21
  • 7
    @Dughall A cabinet should not be publicly opposing a policy it has agreed. That tells your opponents that you are in total disarray. Having the ministers who head your negotiation publicly disagreeing with their own prime minister and the cabinet's official position is the exact opposite of what you want. So Britain never presented a unified position during negotiations. In general nations do not do this in international negotiations as it makes it impossible for the other side(s) to know what you want. A unified official position is a minimum requirement. Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 23:46
  • 2
    EU is more united about Brexit than Britain is.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 12:15
  • 1
    It’s like having a divorce but one side has multiple personalities and keeps switching from ‘I want everything!’ to ‘I want nothing!’
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 8:32

There are a whole bunch of issues that have been sticking points, but the main reason underlying it all is that the EU has been constructed in such a way as to make exiting it difficult.

This is deliberate; the underlying ideals of the the EU are to make another European-wide war impossible by making each part of Europe dependent on each other. An ability for a nation easily extract themselves from this arrangement would undermine that.

An exit clause was in fact written into the treaty that created the EU, but it was never anticipated that it would or could ever be used, so it was left as a very short clause that is missing much of the detail necessary to make an exit a reality. The one thing it did do was establish a fixed time frame for the process.

The result is that the Brexit negotiators on both sides have effectively had to make all of these rules on the fly, with vested interests and conflicting needs making the process difficult, and a fixed deadline adding to the pressure.

As an aside, while none of this is good, it could have been even more difficult if the UK had also joined the Euro currency, because in that case, there isn't an exit clause in the treaty at all; there simply isn't a legal way out of the Euro. This is why Europe went to such extreme lengths to save the Greek economy when there was a threat of Greece leaving the Euro: If "Grexit" had occurred, it would have been an unregulated disaster and would likely have crashed the whole Euro currency.

  • 4
    You forgot the point that the EU absolutely wants no one to leave since there are enough other countries playing with leaving the EU nowadays, really screwing over Britain is a good way for the EU to deter them from trying. It's like setting an example
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 10:51
  • 2
    @Hobbamok You make that sound like a bad thing. Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 13:23
  • 7
    @Hobbamok The options offered by the EU were well known before the Brexit vote. The fact that the UK would be in a miserable negotiation position also only surprises the most deluded. Just because you don't consider the consequences of your actions, doesn't mean third party countries will be particularly nice to you (I do hope you're not going to try that strategy with the US or other trade partners). Don't blame the EU for your own actions.
    – Voo
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 22:36
  • 8
    @Hobbamok, you use the term screwing over, and an EU negociator would use the phrase "getting the best deal for the EU". If instead the UK had been able to get a deal that included Single Market/Customs Union access without Freedom of Movement an EU citizen would have said they were "Screwed Over" and you would have said we'd "got the best deal for the UK". There is nothing surprising about people negotiating strongly for their own side.
    – Jontia
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 10:03
  • 3
    In re Greece, I'd say the exact opposite: the EU did the minimum they could get away with, at fairly terrible cost to Greece. It was Greece who decided that Grexit would have been a disaster, because it would have also ended the bailouts. The bailout conditions were onerous but not having the bailout would have been worse. People were seriously discussing how de-Eurofication could have been done there.
    – pjc50
    Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 15:08

Going back to at least the Delian League, divorces have always been messy. All the more so when one party wants to use the divorce to punish the other. Now, instead of people, we have countries, and groups of countries, which introduces a whole new level of disagreement that regular divorces don't have to contend with.

Compared with other examples one can think of, it actually seems to be going rather well. Much better than the Pakistani divorce that happened around 1970, or the Yugoslav divorce of the 1990s, for example.

  • 1
    While this offers interesting anecdotes, I don't see where it addresses the actual qustion, namely why Brexit negotiations in particular are difficult.
    – sleske
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 10:10

"When the UK voted for Brexit, then it was generally expected that the pro-Brexit politicians had some idea of how negotiations for a Brexit deal would fare and what the outcome would be."

That's not correct. The politicians who announced and ran the referendum were pro-EU and told the public they were going to stay and implement it, regardless of the outcome. After David Cameron resigned, he was then replaced by another pro-EU politician, Theresa May. The negotiations have been mostly done by May and the civil service, which led to the resignation of the pro-leave Dominic Raab as he was sidelined.

  • 3
    This does not provide an answer to the question about WHY the brexit negotiations are so difficult. If you want to make the point that the sentiment of the negotiating UK politicians is the main reason, please provide some examples of why this is the case.
    – Philipp
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 14:51
  • 24
    This is flat wrong. Dave Davis (a brexiteer) and BoJo (A lying clown who claims to be a brexiteer) were put in charge of DExEU and the Foreign Office respectively. They utterly failed to get anything done for 18 months at which point May was stupid enough to step in and let them blame their failures on her by trying to make sure something happened rather than letting them crash out.
    – Tim B
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 15:10
  • 1
    David Davis and other pro-Brexit politicians did have some idea now negotiations would work out - see my answer above. David Davis was Brexit minister and although not prime minister must have had a major influence on what was discussed and with whom. Not sure that all Pro-EU politicians promised to stay on before the referendum result but Cameron did see independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/…
    – Vorsprung
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 15:31

A negotiation requires both parties to have something to gain. The UK is a major contributor and the UK is continuing to contribute to the EU until it leaves. If the UK leaves, it's not coming back.

Given that situation the best choice for the EU is to stall negotiations, be unreasonable, and hope that the fear of economic challenges makes the UK decide to stay.

  • 20
    Feel free to elaborate this answer with examples in where and how the EU is being "unreasonable" or "deliberately stalling" when the UK has not as of yet managed to produce a single remotely realistic plan for what they expect out of Brexit... Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 9:32
  • @Shadur I didn't say they were being unreasonable or deliberately stalling, I said it's their best choice to do so. It's their best choice without regard to what the UK is doing or how anyone feels about Brexit. Please examine why your own viewpoints have lead you to make such a defensive response to someone who brought up the obvious: the financial incentives at play when discussing an international economic union.
    – gunfulker
    Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 18:47
  • 3
    @gunfulker But by your own admission they do not apply right now, no matter how sound the reasoning. As such, they can't be the reason it is (not would be) hard to negotiate a proper Brexit. If you want your answer to say "the UK is afraid that the EU will try to stall negotiations, be unreasonable etc", it should say so. Of course, that would shift the onus on the UK as being the unreasonable one in the negotiations, since they act on expected rather than observed actions, and that might not fit your own agenda. Please examine your own viewpoints?
    – DonFusili
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 15:38
  • 3
    That's indeed an important point that was missing from the discussion but I am afraid you got it exactly wrong. There is a longstanding implicit assumption among many in the UK (especially on the Leave side) that the EU is about zero-sum money transfers. That's one source of the notion that the UK has a lot of leverage or would simply have extra money left to spend on, say, the NHS after leaving. But that's far from the main aspect of membership and not really a major point in the negotiation or the way EU leaders see the organisation.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 15:34
  • 1
    If it was, it would have been relatively easy for the UK to parlay some continuation of payments in a bespoke deal meeting its arbitrary requirements. What the last two years have shown and what this question is getting at is how wrong this assumption was.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 15:36

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