March 20, 2019
How the UK lost Brexit battle
Illustration by Zach Meyer for POLITICO
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.