Pat Leahy: The EU has been awesome in its Brexit negotiating strategy

This chapter in the UK’s history has been marked by a catastrophic failure of leadership

On the way to one of those early Brexit summits, back when people thought “Brexit means Brexit” was a strategy, I chatted idly (at the baggage reclaim in Brussels airport, I seem to recall) to an Irish official, someone familiar with the workings of the EU and close to the decision-making processes of the Irish Government.

I wondered how the negotiations would proceed. He corrected me. “This isn’t a negotiation. It’s a declaration of terms.”

Two other officials, both with long experience of how the European Union works, subsequently agreed with the assessment. All three said it with some resignation; all felt there was no upside for Ireland in what they could see then was the inevitable humiliation of the UK.

From the start – no, even before the start – the EU controlled the process

That humiliation has reached spectacular depths in recent weeks. As Fintan O’Toole has observed, if this farce was taking place in a former colony a few decades ago, chaps would feel justified in tut-tutting and I-told-you-so-ing to the effect that, well there you are, these foreign johnnies aren’t fit to govern themselves.


The EU has been ruthless and ruthlessly effective. It’s debatable – and history will decide – whether such a comprehensive steamrolling of the UK was wise; the verdict probably depends on how the process turns out.

There has been criticism from observers and from senior officials past and present that the EU is brilliant at negotiation but weak on politics and political judgement. But what is indisputable is that the EU has got what it wants from the Brexit process so far and the UK has not.

Raw power

As an exercise in raw power, in negotiating strategy and statecraft, it has been awesome. From the start – no, even before the start – the EU controlled the process.

Within hours of the result of the referendum, aides to Donald Tusk, head of the European Council, the body of EU leaders that is the most important decision-making body of the union, was sending guidance to member state governments on what their position should be. Everything was governed by EU law and procedures.

Puffed up on empty Brexiteer rhetoric but clueless strategically and politically, the UK accepted the EU design of how the talks process would work.

If the UK goes into a long extension next week – likely, but by no means certain – there are the questions that will immediately face Leo Varadkar's Government

There was to be no negotiation until article 50 was triggered. Then the future relationship could not be discussed until the withdrawal agreement was in place. And there would be no withdrawal agreement until the UK had agreed a financial settlement, guaranteed citizens’ rights and dealt with the Irish Border to the satisfaction of the EU.

To all this the EU brought two further advantages – size and discipline. In international relations size matters, and the EU kept that advantage by maintaining unity throughout. The UK made lots of attempts to peel off members, including Ireland. None of them worked.

So at every decisive point in the process the British were forced to concede. It’s not true that the EU never compromised – the all-UK backstop in the withdrawal agreement was a concession to Mrs May, but even then it was made to achieve one of the EU’s strategic goals: the protection of an open Border in Ireland.

Cruel light

But it wasn’t just about EU strength and negotiating facility. It was also about an astonishing failure of leadership on the British side.

Power reveals; seldom has it shone such a cruel light on a politician’s shortcomings as it has done on poor May. But the failure of British leadership was much wider.

To use a second World War analogy – a period which the Brexiteers are fond of citing, as you may have noticed – the greatest fear of the invading Allied armies about the D-Day landings was that they would be “caught on the beaches”.

So the plans revolved around not just getting ashore, but striking inland and establishing a foothold in Normandy, while forces continued to pile ashore behind them.

But the Brexiteers had no preparations for what happened afterwards. They just landed on the beaches, and said to one another, “right, what do we do now?” They were trying to agree what to do when they were pushed back into the sea.

History used be the study of great men and their deeds; no longer. The great impersonal forces of history – economics, the growth and movement of populations, the proliferation of ideas – now plays the dominant role.

But the “great man” theory of history isn’t entirely useless – leadership matters. And this chapter in the UK’s history has been marked by a catastrophic failure of leadership.

The British failures of leadership should stand as a warning to politicians everywhere. As Benjamin Franklin – or was it Roy Keane? – said, fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Understand your opponent. Realise the difference between tactics and strategy.


And set a direction. May has been aimless, circular, without any sense of moving towards a defined destination, lacking a comprehensible narrative.

Politics is dynamic, not static. Governments especially need a sense of momentum, a feeling that they are going forward.

The last Fine Gael-Labour government went off the rails when it lost a sense of progress with a purpose after it exited from the bailout. It had no real coherent answer to the question of what’s next? What do we do now? Should we get off this beach or what?

If the UK goes into a long extension next week – likely, but by no means certain – those are the questions that will immediately face Leo Varadkar’s Government. An election continues to hover in the middle distance.

It’s hard to see life after Brexit, of course.

But it might come at us all pretty fast.