The Five Paradoxes of Brexit

Brexit UK EU referendum concept for out of Great Britain from rest European union and handwriting text what next written in chalkboard with chalk on flag, close up

By David De Cremer

Brexit – despite all the promises made – is not necessarily about creating a better economic future for the country but rather reflects a type of identity negotiation; this article discusses UK’s decision to turn away from the EU and how some expected positive outcomes do not necessarily come into reality – resulting into paradoxes.


When Theresa May finally managed to agree on a deal with the EU on the 1st of November 2018, a sigh of relief was heard across the globe. After almost two years of hard labour and strong opposition, many reasoned that the British negotiators finally came to their senses. The UK seemed to accept the fact that they were not going to be able to disrupt the EU internal market system and its governing principles and rules and that the agreed deal was the best option to secure Brexit. Why am I saying finally? Since article 50 was activated in March 2017, many EU representatives have been frustrated with the image of the British living seemingly in a fairy-tale country as they assumed they could have their cake and eat it. As in any divorce, if you are the one who decides to leave, you also need to accept living with the consequences, which usually means that you will not be getting everything you wished for. In the last two years, it was repeatedly demonstrated that some British politicians – with enough power and influence – had difficulties accepting (or even imagining) such a reality. Although many people had good hopes that with Theresa May agreeing a deal with the EU, the rest of the British government would become more realistic as well. These hopes were, however, quickly smashed when Theresa May returned to the UK. Accusations ranged from statements claiming that her deal was a Brexit in name only to suggestions that she failed as a leader because of her tenacious tendency of listening to no one. The result for now is that the essential Commons vote on Brexit has been delayed and that a vote of no confidence in Theresa May’s leadership has been raised; all events that increase the likelihood of the UK moving in the direction of a no-deal scenario.

As the world watches with disbelief to the unfolding chaos in the UK, one can ask whether all of this is a real surprise or more a predictable surprise? In my view, it should not be a real surprise, because Brexit – despite all the promises made – is not necessarily about creating a better economic future for the country but rather reflects a type of identity negotiation. In other words, those advocating Brexit seem motivated by people’s concern about their standing and representation in the world as being British. This is a natural human concern, but people do differ in how important they consider identity issues to be when having to decide on future economic issues. What we do know from research is that if identity and associated emotions drive decisions it leads usually to less rational actions. The promises and resulting expectations that come along with such a decision process are, at the end of the day, usually flawed because they clearly include too many paradoxes to be regarded as rational. Below, I outline five paradoxes that exist within the context of Brexit.

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About the Author

David De Cremer is the KPMG endowed professor at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, and a fellow at the Hoover institution at Stanford University. He is also the founder and Chief Academic Officer (CAO) of the LEading Artificial intelligence & Digital management (LEAD) platform. He has published more than 250 articles and book chapters and is the author of the book Pro-active Leadership: “How to overcome procrastination and be a bold decision-maker” and “Huawei: Leadership, culture, and connectivity”.


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