While Mr. Gove professed himself “disappointed,” Jacob Rees-Mogg, a strongly pro-Brexit lawmaker who cultivates a cartoonish aristocratic image, greeted protesters who vented their anger on Wednesday by flinging fish into the Thames. “The Government had rolled over but had not even had its tummy tickled,” Mr. Rees-Mogg said earlier, repeating, with apparent approval, words spoken to him by a fellow critic.
Fishing is just one of Mrs. May’s Brexit retreats. “She’s been on a very, very steep learning curve and is just getting to grips with something that is very complex,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London. He added that “the evidence suggests that learning on the job leaves you slightly behind the curve in negotiations.”
To secure the transitional deal, Britain agreed that, for the 21-month period (about three months less than Britain wanted) it will obey European Union rules while having no say in making them, and extend the same rights to those Europeans who arrive in Britain as those already there, something which contradicts a previous direct promise from Mrs. May.
This is hardly the first set of Brexit concessions. Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, famously once said that Europeans could “go whistle” if they expected huge British payments. Last year, Britain agreed to a divorce payment estimated by its official watchdog at $52 billion, including liabilities for pensions that will run until 2064.
Even the idea of a standstill transition was initially resisted by Mrs. May, who, once reconciled, insisted on calling it an “implementation period” instead.
Analysts struggle to identify concessions made by the other side. Seemingly the only one of any substance is to limit the time the European Court of Justice will help adjudicate post-Brexit disputes on the rights of European Union citizens living in Britain.
Though David Davis, Britain’s Brexit secretary, trumpeted on Monday the fact that Britain would be able to negotiate and sign non-European trade deals during the transition, if not to implement them, experts were unimpressed. Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, a research institute, describes that as a “token,” since prospects of such talks being completed during the transition period were remote. “I don’t think that’s a real concession,” he said.
Mr. Menon believes that Britain’s divorce financial settlement could have been worse, but added that “in general the European Union has got what it wanted.”
Much of this is the legacy of Mrs. May’s decision to invoke Article 50 — the exit clause of the European Union’s treaty — before she was ready (though after she had laid down “red lines” that have faded away in some cases). That set a two-year deadline until departure, instantly putting Britain under pressure. Since the European Union had also wanted to resolve Brexit quickly, Britain relinquished the leverage that threatening delay might have offered.
London seems on track to repeat its error by agreeing to a time-limited 21-month transition, rather than one that can be extended. During this time, the detail of future trade ties should be finalized and, with the clock ticking, the advantage will again be with the European side as another “cliff edge” looms — one more damaging to the British than the continental side.
Almost no one outside the British government thinks 21 months is enough time for this task, something that Mr. Menon describes as a significant worry. “I don’t see how we do without extending it, and, technically, I don’t see how we extend it,” he said.
Such missteps derive from the fact that, in London, decisions over Brexit are motivated not primarily by expert advice, strategic considerations, game theory or negotiating tactics but by domestic politics. Mrs. May is under pressure from hard-liners who — perhaps fearing that public support for leaving might ebb — want to quit the bloc as soon as possible and certainly before Britain’s next elections.
Some Brexiteers want to negotiate an orderly rupture with the bloc’s economic structures. Others want Britain to crash out without a deal and withhold its divorce payment. There are more pragmatic, pro-European voices in the cabinet too, worried about the impact of departure on the economy, and such political divisions have paralyzed decision making.
Mr. Grant points out that there is still no detailed policy paper explaining the type of trade deal Britain wants with the European Union, an omission he attributes to political divisions.
Another complication is that pro-Brexit politicians, including Mrs. May, have consistently overestimated their bargaining power and made a number of unrealistic statements.
Though Mr. Gove once claimed that “the day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards,” Mr. Grant says the opposite is true, with Britain only having a couple of real bargaining chips. Money was the biggest one, but the Brussels negotiators insisted that the financial terms for divorce were settled early in the talks, reducing London’s leverage.
Britain has coastal waters that other European nations want to fish. But fishermen are popular, so trading their livelihoods for the thing Britain really wants — privileged access to European financial and services markets — would be politically toxic. Britain’s strength as a security partner, while real, is hard to use in negotiations, said Mr. Grant, who noted that Mrs. May provoked a continental backlash when she hinted that she might.
Britain remains a big export market for the European Union, and continental countries have commercial interests that will test their unity during trade talks. But so far, the belief that Europe’s negotiating position would be determined by the interests of German carmakers has looked like another miscalculation.
Perhaps because of their disdain for the European Union, the Brexiteers seem to have little understanding of their enemy. Some, including John Redwood, a former cabinet minister, have argued that a show of obduracy in negotiations invariably prompts Brussels to give way.
While this tactic often worked well for Britain during internal discussions as a member nation, it is now embroiled in a trade negotiation with a bigger and more formidable adversary that needs to demonstrate the misfortunes that can befall a country that chooses to leave.
And most analysts say that the bloc’s trade negotiators are used to dealing with hardened counterparts, from the United States to China, and rarely cave in.
“I think the logic is seeping through,” said Mr. Grant, who worries that it will only sour opinions in Britain. “People realize that the European Union is a very tough and strong negotiator, that we have very few cards and that the outcome will be imposed on the British — on European terms.”