Deliberate disregard for basic negotiating principles will come back to haunt the governmentby Steve Bullock / March 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
It’s fair to say that the Brexit negotiations are not going well. Stalled over the lack of a credible solution to the Irish border issue, and with the prime minister touting a vision of a future relationship that had, at the point it was announced, already been ruled out by the EU27, the clock ticks ominously.
Donald Tusk rightly said there is no cake on the table for anyone from Brexit, just salt and vinegar for everyone. All will lose from any Brexit, and the UK will lose much more than the EU27. A no-deal Brexit though would harm the UK and its people in ways we haven’t even realised yet. Without a serious change in policy from the UK though, that is again a possibility.
One of the main reasons we are in this position is that the UK government has continued to have a total and apparently deliberate disregard for the fundamental negotiating concepts of trust and goodwill.
It’s wrong to think, as many in government seem to, of the Brexit negotiations as a poker game. Being unwilling to “show your hand” in negotiations is a route to failure. In poker, you use secrecy, misdirection and uncertainty to stack the odds in favour of you winning and, crucially, your opponent losing. Negotiations, in contrast, are about finding ways for both sides to be happy, or, in Brexit, at least not lose out too badly. If you won’t tell your opposite numbers what you want, it is impossible for them to give it to you.
Establishing and maintaining trust and goodwill is not about being nice or giving in. It’s in your own self-interest. To get anywhere near the outcome you want, you’re going to need to get concessions from your opposite numbers and will have to be able to offer the same to them. They also need to know they can take you at your word and that you will honour the agreements you make.
When I was negotiating for the UK, I would keep two annotated lists pinned above my desk. One was the list of our primary and secondary objectives, so I could see easily what had been agreed so far and what was still to be done. The other was a list of my opposite numbers, and the last time I had been for coffee with each of them to listen to and understand their positions, explain our own, and look for solutions together. The two lists were equally important.
“EU negotiators do not know whether the person across the table is genuinely speaking for the government or not”
Yet the UK government has burned trust and goodwill at every stage. Inflammatory and insulting language (as pointed out by UK MEPs last week) has served to sour relations. Posturing and table thumping has ruined credibility. Attempts to divide EU member States have not only failed, but have helped to break down trust. That the government is willing to mislead its own people (“exact same” rights for citizens and access to the Single Market anyone?) and misrepresent the EU27’s position is noted in Brussels, and not forgotten easily.
The UK government’s inability to agree policy among itself has meant that EU negotiators do not know whether the person across the table is genuinely speaking for the government or not. When positions have finally arrived, they have been internally contradictory, and based on things that the EU27 have already ruled out as being not on the table, or in some cases impossible under EU law for them to agree to. The government has then portrayed the EU27 as bullying and unwilling to compromise.
By offering a wide choice of options, and clarity on the rights and responsibilities attached to each, the EU27 have already compromised. It could have picked its preferred option and negotiated on that basis. Some may now be wondering why it didn’t, when even the more generous position has been painted as a hostile act in the UK.
We see the effect of this lack of trust and goodwill most starkly in the current impasse over the Irish border. The UK position has been based on a very obvious bluff—that either a future trade relationship or a technological solution will solve the problem. Having gone along with the bluff for the sake of the negotiations, and to save the PM from her own political difficulties, the EU27 were met with immediate attempts to roll back from or downplay the Phase One agreement. The UK has still made no proposals for either of its own preferred solutions.
Having concluded that they, and Ireland, care substantially more about this than the UK government does, and burned by breaches of trust and goodwill, the EU27 have finally had enough of the UK’s bluff, and have called it. Hence their proposal for the “backstop” option of Northern Ireland remaining in the Customs Union, and, largely, as part of the Single Market.
This has been met with howls of “betrayal” and “annexation,” of course. In an atmosphere of mutual trust and neighbourly goodwill, perhaps the EU27 would have been willing to let the UK maintain the bluff and kick the can further down the road. Maybe they would have looked for solutions that meet the UK’s self-imposed red lines. At this stage though, why would they?
The government has gained nothing from this all except for a bit of jingoistic fervour to keep people’s attention from the unfolding disaster. It must now find its own solutions, and cannot expect to be helped to make things more palatable at home (as the EU27 did with it for the financial settlement), or for EU27 to take account of the perilous political position the PM finds herself in. They tried that, and got nothing but vinegar back.
In a process with no winners, the government has nonetheless managed to ensure that it will be the undisputed loser.