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What went wrong with Brexit by Peter Foster; The EU’s Response to Brexit by Brigid Laffan and Stefan Telle: losers and winners

Paul Gillespie assesses two authoritative and informative studies of the aftermath of Britain’s departure from the EU

What went wrong with Brexit: And What We Can Do About It
Author: Peter Foster
ISBN-13: 978-1805301257
Publisher: Canongate
Guideline Price: £14.99
The EU’s Response to Brexit: United and Effective
Author: Brigid Laffan and Stefan Telle
ISBN-13: 978-3031262623
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Guideline Price: £99.99

“Brexit has made the UK less competitive, less open and less productive than it otherwise would have been.” Peter Foster’s sober assessment, based on the forensic and methodical reporting for which he has become renowned as a correspondent on European Union affairs for the Financial Times and previously for the Daily Telegraph, is delivered with convincing and riveting detail in this tightly argued book.

He goes on to observe: “It is a bitter irony that the act of leaving the EU actually left the UK more impacted by EU rules and regulations, not less.” And further: “Brexit has instead delivered political instability at home and embarrassment abroad, surprisingly high levels of immigration, weak borders and poor trade performance, corrosive levels of business uncertainty and — ironically — all with limited scrutiny from the newly sovereign UK parliament.”

There are many elements of classic dramatic irony here, in the sense that the full significance of a narrator’s words and actions become clear although they remain unknown to the character. Foster shows that the UK is not happier, healthier or freer outside than inside the EU, notwithstanding promises made by the main Brexiteers. As Brigid Laffan and Stefan Telle of the European University Institute argue in their compelling study of how the EU framed and organised its response to Brexit, the UK has lost control of its destiny in this period of major geopolitical shifts. That “supreme irony” is the most dramatic outcome of the process so far. The two books offer a valuable back-to-back understanding of how it came about, one based on journalistic investigation and the other on academic analysis and detailed interviews with the main participants.

Foster argues it is now crucial that British citizens and decision-makers get over the dishonesty, fallacies and fantasies that have led them to this juncture seven years after the Brexit decision. They must overcome the “climate of silence” that brought them here. They need to reboot now, not in seven years’ time when events will have moved on even more decisively, based on an understanding of the real facts and the pragmatism for which the British state was long renowned but for which it has lost its reputation.


Essentially this is a matter of the economics urgently needing to catch up with the politics of Brexit. As he says, the business community in particular was ignored in most of the Brexit debates. His book is based on a host of well-judged case studies and examples from the business experience of Brexit, broadly conceived to include companies large and small, trade unions, farmers, fishermen, cultural and conservation groups as well as overall representative and regulatory bodies. Up-to-date academic and policy studies are used to situate and analyse the individual evidence from exporters, manufacturers and everyday people caught up in new tangles of bureaucracy and policy confusion.

Hampstead Tea, a small exporting company, cannot afford the new paperwork involved in the UK becoming an EU third country for trade. Neither can companies exporting lawnmower noise controls and parts for advanced aircraft engines. Testing capacity for new British standards on heating houses does not exist so can’t be implemented. Such problems are products of political decisions by Theresa May and Boris Johnson to remove the UK from the customs union and the single market. Vivid examples of how farming, education, the health service, the music industry and the travel trade are affected drive home his case. A telling chapter on how Brexit has unsettled the UK constitution deals with devolution, Northern Ireland and the emerging demands for Scottish independence and Irish unity.

The book is organised in two parts, the first diagnosing in eight short chapters what went wrong with Brexit and the second suggesting in six more what can be done about it. Although Foster recognises many of the factors driving Brexit have a long pre-history, he concentrates on how the policy was badly designed and then poorly executed. This means he is not open to the criticism that Brexit should simply be reversed. He recognises those seven years have made a real difference so that rejoining the EU is simply not realistic now. Instead, a rethink is required based on a sober analysis of new realities.

He bases much of this rethink on influential research by Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and associated think tanks dealing with these realities, recognising that industries like chemicals, cars and pharmaceuticals in areas that voted for Brexit require EU trading access to survive. There is a need to reset relations with the EU by aiming for a fresh relationship from the 2026 review of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement. But its starting point must understand why a high EU official could say the UK is no longer a first-order question for the EU.

There was a chronic lack of preparation and strategic thinking on Brexit and many misconceptions of how the EU might respond, Foster writes. A central point is that the UK is not exceptional as a modern trading nation despite its imperial history and nostalgia for its former maritime-based power among leading Brexiteers. Fifty per cent of British trade is with the EU. Gravity theories of such relationships insist geography matters far more than potential global deals with the Anglosphere imagined to replace the European relationship. Trade deals with India, Australia and New Zealand have trade-offs too, on migration and beef imports.

A recurrent theme is that the power relationship between the UK and the EU is deeply asymmetric. The UK’s 50 per cent trade dependency is matched by a mere 6 per cent on the EU side, making the UK a much weaker dé mandeur in negotiating terms.

These geopolitical themes are developed at greater length and analytical depth in the Laffan and Telle study. Foster understands that were the Brexiteers to have had their way, the logic of what they demanded would have meant that competition on their terms would have led to a disintegrative free-for-all.

Laffan and Telle analyse how in facing that existential challenge immediately after 23 June 2016 EU leaders decided to prioritise the single market over bilateral trading relations. They insisted on a united approach towards the UK organised by a distinct new team and drawing on the brightest talent in EU institutions. This was wise four months before Donald Trump became US president, inaugurating more hostile international moves against European integration, as leading Brexiteers anticipated and hoped to see happen.

President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker popularised the term poly-crisis at the time, mindful of the 2005 EU referendum crisis, the 2010 Euro-crisis, the 2015 flow of Syrian refugees and now Brexit. He chose leading French politician Michel Barnier as head of the Brexit negotiating team and insisted that the EU refuse to have its wider agenda constrained by Brexit, but adapt flexibly to tackle further crises.

Laffan and Telle believe this overall strategy has worked. It may represent a step change in the collective power of the EU as a compound polity that manages deep European interdependence. Brexit did not herald EU disintegration; instead, the response adopted allowed it develop a more effective capacity to deal with Covid, geopolitical shifts, the Ukraine war, rule of law issues and now prospective further enlargement.

The study uses an elegant theoretical and analytical scaffolding centred on governance, issue framing and the creation of this new capacity to explain how the EU handled Brexit. Their approach goes beyond liberal inter-governmental theories about the EU which emphasise the rational interests of states and domestic pressure groups. A crude inter-governmentalism underlies most British Eurosceptical thought, leading to expectations that German carmakers would support Brexit. Instead, they valued the single market’s integrity over British car sales, as did the German government and other potentially sympathetic states. EU membership matters more now, along with a new sense of policy ownership and trust encouraged by Barnier’s scrupulous negotiating transparency.

This approach by the formidably capable EU negotiating team became an effective counterforce to British tactics of divide and rule and cherry-picking applied to the EU and its member-states in pursuit of Brexit claims under May and then against threats to destabilise relations by no-deal brinkmanship under Johnson. The argument is developed in documentary detail through successive stages of the EU-UK talks with excellent tables outlining EU and UK negotiating positions and outcomes and the insights gained from interviews with key figures.

Framing the Irish Border as a European issue for the single market, not a specifically Irish one was a key factor in securing EU solidarity with the Republic. From North and South of this island we see a Britain weakened externally and internally by Brexit and exhibiting a loss of the statecraft and capacity to address it that Foster urgently wants to see restored.

Further reading

My Secret Brexit Diary: A Glorious Illusion by Michel Barnier (Cambridge University Press, 2021)

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, kept a diary of the talks. Although short on insider scoops or scandals it documents them in technical detail, especially how he assembled the team and negotiated. He is astonished at British unpreparedness, aware of their tactics — and especially good on the refusal of Merkel and Macron to take calls from Johnson.

Inside the Deal: How the EU Got Brexit Done by Stefaan De Rynck (Agenda Publishing, 2023)

De Rynck was in charge of communications on Barnier’s team. His book describes the brilliance and skill of the EU side —notably how by controlling the phasing of talks between withdrawal and future relations they dominated the outcome.

Brexit and Ireland: The Dangers, The Opportunities, and the Inside Story of the Irish Response by Tony Connelly (Penguin Ireland, 2018)

A classic of Irish journalism by RTÉ’s Europe editor. His reporting has deserved national and international repute and the book documents vividly the issues at stake for Ireland.

Paul Gillespie

Paul Gillespie

Dr Paul Gillespie is a columnist with and former foreign-policy editor of The Irish Times