Brexit is already structured as a negotiation without end – but what happens if Brexit continues to be a political row without end?

24th February 2021

One of the wisest and most perceptive of political commentators is Rafael Behr – and at the end of a recent wise and perceptive column is this wise and perceptive observation:

‘For the true believers, a good Brexit is one that keeps the grievance alive; that makes foreigners the scapegoat for bad government; that continues to indulge the twin national myths of victimhood and heroic defiance. Measured for that purpose, Johnson’s pointless Brexit is perfect.’

Another commentator Mujtaba Rahman makes similar points in this depressingly plausible thread:

Is there anything in these pessimistic takes?

Are things likely to now get worse – or at least not get any better?


As I set out in this Financial Times video, the trade and cooperation agreement is structured deliberately as framework for ongoing negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom:

This requirement for ongoing engagement is a feature – and not a bug – of the departure arrangements.

There are institutions and processes in place for constant dialogue – and five-yearly cycles are expressly envisaged for more fundamental shifts in the relationship.

The formal relationship will be, and is intended to be dynamic, not static.

This was, of course, always likely to be the case with a Brexit which has been conducted at speed and with little or no planning or indeed thought.

Many things were left undone with the intention of dealing with them later.

But whatever the explanation, one thing that can be said with certainty is that the Brexit we have had is not a ‘once-and-for-all’ event where ‘with-one-bound-we-were-free’.

So regardless of the mood of politicians the law and policy process of Brexit has not gone away – and may well never do so, at least for a political generation or two (or three).


Law and policy is one thing – and politics is another.

One can perhaps envisage a future – even under the current arrangements – where the Brexit issue is de-intensified, and where everyone gets on in a post-Brexit context.


If the observations of Behr and others are correct such an outlook is unduly optimistic.

Many Brexit arguments are instead now beginning – and will become all the more intense because now they have supposed facts of ‘EU v UK’ to feed off, as opposed to the definite fictions.

If this is the case, then there will be implications for the framework provided by the trade and cooperation agreement.

For that framework is intended implicitly as almost a technocratic device – a means by which two friendly entities merely and boringly manage a relationship, making adjustments as they go along.

Talking shops, not boxing rings.

Less clear is how the trade and cooperation agreement – and also the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol of the prior withdrawal agreement – will take a never-ending storm of partisanship and hostility.

That is not what these agreements were designed for.

The clue is in the ‘cooperation’ part of the very name ‘trade and cooperation agreement’.

Cooperation it says, and not confrontation.

It is not a trade and confrontation agreement.



Few things are inevitable in human affairs.

It is still only February – the month after the Brexit transition arrangements came to an end.

Nothing that has so far happened can demonstrate with certainty what the first few years of Brexit will be like.

Things may calm down, or things may get far worse, or something new may come along which changes everything.

All that said, however, this early volatility indicates that any easy and quick passage of the United Kingdom to full participation in the European Union single market and customs union is unlikely – and still less the prospect of rejoining.

Even if things do calm down, they are now unlikely to go back to how they were.


The key political question now is whether the government and its political and media supporters can themselves ‘move on’ from Brexit.

For if they cannot politically ‘move on’ then the Brexit withdrawal and cooperation arrangements (which this government itself negotiated, signed, won an electoral mandate for, and implemented into law) will be politicised and contested in the same way membership of the European Union was politicised and contested.

And it is not inevitable that the Brexit withdrawal and cooperation arrangements will be able to withstand such sustained political assaults.

The Brexit withdrawal and cooperation arrangements may have replaced full membership of the European Union, but that does not mean there is in turn an even-smaller Russian doll of a formal relationship available if those arrangements fail.

If the Brexit withdrawal and cooperation arrangements crash, there may be nothing to replace them.

Brace, brace.


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26 thoughts on “Brexit is already structured as a negotiation without end – but what happens if Brexit continues to be a political row without end?”

  1. “This requirement for ongoing engagement is a feature – and not a bug – of the departure arrangements”
    Inevitably – any Swiss could have warned you. It is an indication of Britain’s political immaturity that this was not understood by the wider population. Of course, most of the media made sure not to point this out.

    As Behr points out, the most remarkable aspect is the refusal of Starmer and the new Labour leadership to do anything about… anything. Disappointingly, Starmer is no better than Corbyn

    1. Switzerland is the best analogy, not just because their relationship is characterised by neverending negotiations and a patchwork of bilateral treaties. The Swiss vociferously guard their sovereignty and hold strong EU-sceptic views, but their debate is more nuanced than the dualistic simplism in the UK, where the EU is seen as either great or evil. As two polarised sides feed off each other, the question is whether the UK as a whole can move on to better debate and whether the media will give space to more nuanced opinion.

      1. If people in the UK fall into dualistic simplism – or simplistic dualism – about the EU, perhaps one side might be characterised as “EU evil” but the other is most definitely not an unqualified “EU great”. Almost any supporter of the EU (remainer, remoaner, rejoiner, whatever) will recognise that there is plenty wrong with the EU. Just, like democracy, it is better than the alternatives.

        On the main topic, we have always been at war with Eastasia. It suits the politicians to blame a bogey man (or turnip ghost if you prefer) across the water. We get into problems when they start to believe their own rhetoric.

  2. I am not often truly depressed, but this piece, and Behr’s leave me feeling profoundly disturbed for our future society. Destitution is growing, and there is no sign that our current government intends to address it – leveling up seems to mean nothing other than a bit of bridge and maybe tunnel building. Will endless blaming of the EU for all our problems stick? What will it mean – will the Conservatives be blamed for the appalling state of the country – or continue to pretend they can fix it – while reveling crony capitalism of the worst sort, egged on by Murdoch et al.. What will our disaffected, despairing and possibly destitute communities do?

  3. Your identification of post-Brexit as ‘a negotiation without end’ reminds me of a discourse given by one of Jacques Delors’ advisers when advocating a now long-forgotten initiative. I paraphrase (and translate – it was, of course, in French) from memory:

    “The genius of the Community method is to recognise that jaw-jaw is better than war-war (Churchill quotations were very popular in the higher levels of the Commission) but that jaw-jaw is useless without structure. So, unlike other talking-shops (he very cruelly cited the Council of Europe and the United Nations) we set up a structure for discussion but underpin it with a legal basis, or with a funding instrument. This way opposing sides have an incentive to keep talking and eventually a common interest in a mutually acceptable solution.”

    This, it seems to me, is precisely the model instituted for the post-Brexit environment. Potentially, or actually, opposed parties are forced to keep talking if they want to achieve their goals, in a structure that should minimise, if not eliminate, any incentive (or legal possibility) to walk away. And then, in a far-off future when tempers have cooled, it will be possible to work together to reestablish the former very valuable cooperation.

    1. ‘Jaw, jaw and war, war Jaw, jaw is better than war, war.’ 1954, Washington. (Finest Hour 122, 15.)

      Winston Churchill’s official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, speaking of this quote, noted that Churchill actually said, ‘Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.’ Four years later, during a visit to Australia, Harold Macmillan said the words usually—and wrongly—attributed to Churchill: “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war.” Credit: Harold Macmillan.

      1. Thank you for the correction. I wondered about checking attribution of the quote but as the point was that the speaker in question thought he was quoting Churchill I decided to be lazy. But I will be better informed next time.

  4. I’m now resigned to the idea that UK-EU relations will continue to sour until and unless the pro-brexit politicians are removed from power. That doesn’t mean a future government composed of those who always thought it was a bad idea will rejoin, even if they wanted to, that is not their choice alone. But unless people with wiser, less fanatical, heads take back the reigns of power the UK is, I’m sad to say, likely to continue in a downward spiral. That decline driven not just from Brexit directly, but from the continued influence and ill informed world views of those that promoted it.

    1. quote: unless people with wiser, less fanatical, heads take back the reigns of power

      Fanatical heads with the reins of power think they have a reign of power. But it
      doesn’t need some vicious passing insect stinging the team in harness to find
      out if they know the difference and can actually handle the reins. A gentle
      downslope, gradually getting steeper, is also going to test their ability to handle
      the reins of power.

    2. I’m from a (very ordinary) business background and what terrifies me is the IMBALANCE between (1) the IMMEDIATE and quite possibly unsurvivable economic harm Brexit is doing the UK; and (2) the DISTANT prospects of getting a better government in place to mitigate the damage that’s already been done … and hopefully reverse some of it.

      We can’t make a living for all of us by selling to niche markets – yet it’s only the relatively few customers for these items that might be willing to overlook the hassle, uncertainty and extra costs of buying from us.

      Brexit means that on the volume markets – the ones that employ most people and provide most sales – buying from UK suppliers costs customers more; stops them getting timely delivery; and presents them with legal, quality assurance and insurance difficulties they wouldn’t have if trading within their bloc. Customers can avoid all these problems by ceasing to trade with mainland Britain ASAP. Why wouldn’t they?

      British business is already in a weakened state due to the 4 years uncertainty over the Brexit deal and then the Covid-19 pandemic. It won’t take long for them to go to the wall.

      By contrast, I look at the calibre of politicians currently in power and those in opposition … and can’t see rescue from either source.

  5. Depressing, but not inaccurate, I feel. What Brexiters really want is a war, preferably with guns, but words will do. Meanwhile, for those of us caught in the crossfire it is no joke. The latest thing to hit us Brits in France, for instance, is that people’s British driving licences are reaching their expiry date and we can’t apply for French ones because no agreement has been reached. People have been trying to swap ever since the 2016 Referendum but the French system was overwhelmed so the French just halted it and sent our British licences back. Since many of us live rurally, without access to public transport, we are completely stranded, with no goodwill from governments on either side.

    1. After twenty years living in Italy I was this week disenfrancised by the Italian Govrnment from voting in local and European elections. I am also disenfrancised from voting in the UK although EU citizens with ‘settled status’ in the UK continue to have a similar vote. This is not progress . It is tyranny.

      1. In France, we lost our vote a year or two ago due to Brexit. It is galling, and it does have personal repercussions. I had a noise dispute with a neighbour and the mayor was frank about not being able to act on it with an election coming up because our neighbours could vote and we no longer could – he didn’t dare antagonise them. Brexit is having millions of small, personal impacts like this on individuals.

  6. The commentators are correct: there is no “and in one bound he was free”. The UK, or more likely a rump of UK – England and a reluctant Wales – will sink further into victim hood and belligerence in direct correlation to its increasing economic , political and cultural diminution. Loss of its seat at the UN Security Council will be the real mark of Britain’s place in the global firmament.

  7. I think it is all going to depend on the percieved fate of the Tory Party. Brexit was the unloved bastard child of (calling a spade, a spade) David Cammeron; a huge miscalculation based on a political gamble to silence UKIP and the Tory Eurosceptics. As they say: epic fail.

    The Conservative Party owns Brexit. Since July 2017, a majority of those poled see Brexit as a mistake – and that is before the fact of 1/1/21. Raab imagines that people should give it a decade – easy for somebody in his position to say, but not so easy for people seeing livelihoods go. Despite the “boosterism”, Brexit delivers nothing to improve the economic lot of the average Brit and, indeed, the future for most will be poorer. So, if the Tories want to hang on to power, they are going to have to reverse many aspects of Brexit whilst pretending the Emperor is clothed in the finest garments. This simply will not be possible, even with the right wing press on board.

    Starmer is biding his time. It is inconceiveable that the next Labour manifesto will call for “business as usual” with a post-Brexit EU. It will be a judgment call as to whether enough of the electorate wants to reverse Brexit to overtly call for talks to be opened, but it is a racing certainty that it will call for a reduction of red tape in UK/EU trade, moves toward a resumption of frictionless trade and a pledge to match or better EU social and economic protections. Starmer’s dilemma is only on when to call the race. At some point, it must be acknowledged that only a minority supports Brexit – the demographics suggest that younger and more educated people oppose it. The gravitational model of politics?

    1. Brexit was the unloved bastard child of (calling a spade, a spade) David Cameron

      Would that it were unloved.

      But headlines like the one in the Sun “newspaper” recently describing the EU’s relatively tardy (compared to the UK) roll-out of Covid vaccination as a “Brexit win”, tell a different – and frankly nauseating, to any decent human being – story.

      Bigots and sociopaths are loving this.

  8. As I understand it, the EU has not ratified the trade and cooperation agreement. Until it does so, there must be a possibility that it will not ratify. That would crash the withdrawal and cooperation arrangements. The Commission, the Parliament and the Member States will not have forgotten the flagrant and open plan to ignore the agreement and breach international law announced by a certain Brandon Lewis.

    The most difficult problems may arise with Northern Ireland. Anyone who has joined, for instance, the IFG events will be struck by the determination of all participants to find technical solutions to minimise adverse impact of the NI Protocol. Left to officials (including diplomats) and trade associations, the friction caused by the Protocol will be minimised.

    But this does not address the intransigence of unionists. It looks pretty clear that Johnson and Gove have made the same error as Asquith in 1912 when he proposed legislation for Home Rule that ignored the fact of Ulster opposition. By April/May 1914 he had realised the terrible mistake he had made, but owing to the precise provisions of the Parliament Act of 1911 he was boxed in.

    We have a very similar situation now. Johnson is stuck with what he has signed up to with the EU.

    Hard line unionists are determined that there shall be no separation of Ulster from London. Some are willing to threaten the lives and families of those working in customs posts and other physical facilities. Those DUP politicians who abhor violence (and that is not all of them) are under pressure from an emergent hard line unionist party. And many of us have had the experience when talking to an entirely sane, sensible, good natured Ulsterman witnessing a mad glint come into his eyes if one mentions a united Ireland.

    One cannot be certain that locating all physical infrastructure on this side of the Irish Sea will work. Sectarianism was a driving force in Liverpool politics – in the 1970s ambitious young Conservatives owned bowler hats to join Orange marches in the city – but it is unlikely to revive. Security for facilities in Scotland (at Cairnryan) might well cause some friction between London and Edinburgh as policing is a devolved matter. The situation would become very much more tense if hard line unionists decided to adopt the tactics of republican terrorists during the troubles and attack targets in England.

    The Belfast Agreement provided a framework in which the two sides in Northern Ireland had opportunities to work together and it did so against a background of a common citizenship of the European Union. This framework might over time have allowed distrust to diminish to a point where a political structure for the whole island of Ireland would have become generally acceptable. That prospect has now receded.

    Johnson and Gove are in the position of Asquith – with no viable means of ending the conflict that they have started.

  9. We have ideological drive to exit Europe combined with political short-termism to get past immediate obstacles. In other words, lies plus deceits.

    We have Brexiteers whose self-image, to quote Iain Duncan Smith, is “To be out there buccaneering, trading, dominating the world again…”. This ‘global Britain’ strategy is (to mangle a few metaphors) unlikely to survive contact with the enemy, and is poetic campaigning which is unlikely to translate well into prose governing. I expect more lies and deceits about these things.

    Eventually people will get tired and bored and disinterested in the lies and deceits and will get on with making things work in relation to Europe – one way or another. But I think that will be on your one or two or three political generations timescale.

  10. Our narcissist Prime Mimister is interested only in building his brand. That brand is based on whatever jingoistic nonsense he can get away with, leavened with as many meaningless photo-opportunities of him ‘in action’ as he can crowbar into the press and television, with the positive (for him) side-effect of denying the opposition any oxygen. I for one was astonished at the list of people he talked to/got on side at the time of the announcement in September, with Murdoch and the Barclay brothers only at the top of a very long list. He and his fawning accomplices in the press will continue to use every opportunity to paint the EU as the enemy/aggressor, as they have done for the last fifty years, to continue to build the authoritarian politics of grievance and anger – and sell their papers. Brexit is a side show. The key issue is how to address/confront/break the authoritarian cult that Johnson and his cronies in the press are developing.

  11. I take issue with the notion that the government ‘won an electoral mandate’ for withdrawal. In the 2019 election around 52% of those voting voted for parties proposing to cancel Brexit or hold another referendum, fewer than 48% voted for parties supporting Brexit.

      1. It’s time to see what UK can do
        To test the limits and break through
        No right, no wrong, no rules for us, we’re free!

        Being left out in the cold never bothered us anyway.

  12. Thankyou interesting and informative.

    ‘Despite public pronouncements to contrary, in private, officials on both sides now acknowledge that this seems likely 1/5’

    Reminds me in part of a chat with a Greek friend in 2018:

    30/6/15 Tsipras wins a resounding victory on an anti-austerity ticket saying he will push for renegotiation of bailout, dept cancellation and renewed public sector spending. Threatens default and potential exit from the monetary union.
    Five days later a referendum votes 60/40 in support.
    16/7/15 Tsipras is forced to ignore all this and press parliament to agree to a new round of austerity measures after a nodoubt frantic weekend of discussions with the EU.

    Two years after the Brexit referendum both he and I agreed this was not looking great for the UK.

    He made the point that he found it somewhat amusing that whereas the Greek public essentially gave up and had the commonsense to move on, we Brits were not going to back down and would plough on despite the increasing probability of a poor outcome for the UK.

  13. One can always hope that, just as the US eventually tired of Trump, so a majority of English voters will tire of Boris and the Brexiters. It may take years, but a day will come when declining living standards and the memory of the good old days of the EU will bring a sea change. We live in a world where ever more nations are coming together to form free trade areas and customs unions and to pool their sovereignty to gain from it. And who spawned the idea? We did, when we created the United Kingdom centuries before anyone else did.

  14. A strong sense of victimhood is most corrosive, even if justified. In Ireland we had it for fifty years after independence and it rotted the soul (ask Ruth Dudley-Edwards). Pray God it doesn’t happen to Britain.

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