European Union-United Kingdom Handshake For Peace

Brexit: a negotiator’s observations

Over the course of my EU career I have negotiated many things, from trade quotas to international treaties. Here are a few comments and observations on preparations for Brexit negotiations.

  • Goodwill forms an essential part of one’s negotiating capital. Where one side feels goodwill towards the other, that party is more likely to accept trade-offs for the sake of an agreement which helps his partner keep his stakeholders happy. In a successful negotiation, both sides come away feeling happy with the outcome.
  • A confrontational, zero-sum situation, where winning is impossible without the other side losing, is less likely to lead to a good outcome for either side. You negotiate better with partners, not with opponents.
  • The best outcomes are achieved where both sides understand the other’s motivations and objectives, and have some empathy. “Help us help you” should be the motto of both sides in a negotiation. Try to put emotions to one side and be realistic about the other side’s objectives and motivation. To do that, you must get out of your echo chamber.
  • Avoid doing anything which will erode goodwill. For example, if your negotiating partner is most comfortable working in his own language, ask yourself “how can we help him work in his own language without putting ourselves in a weaker position?” Don’t run to the newspapers declaring that you will force him to work in your language rather than his – and especially don’t do that where you can’t deliver on that threat.
  • Negotiators always have to keep an eye ahead and an eye behind: watch and understand your negotiating partner and watch and understand your own stakeholders. Be careful to get the balance right. Don’t be so focused on managing your own stakeholders that you take your eye off the people with whom you will actually be negotiating.
  • Talking down your negotiating partner, adopting confrontational language, making demonstrably unrealistic or false assertions about your negotiating strengths, in order to build support among your stakeholders, is a very risky strategy. Your negotiating partner is watching, and will adapt his negotiating strategy and tactics accordingly.
  • If you do decide to go down the route of confrontation, do so from a position of strength. Bullying isn’t nice but it can be a valid strategy when you face intransigence. But only if you genuinely hold the right cards. The UK’s problem is (a) it does not hold a strong hand, (b) it is currently behaving in an intransigent way itself, (c) it therefore risks being the one who ends up being bullied.
  • Know your negotiating partner. If your partner is a Brussels institution with decades of experience negotiating complex agreements with multiple partners and simultaneously managing multiple stakeholders, confrontation probably isn’t going to be the best strategy. And don’t stick your head in the sand. You have to work with those negotiators – don’t invest all your effort in lobbying Berlin and Paris when Brussels is where you should be focusing most of your attention.

(Disclaimer: I am not involved on either side of this negotiation except as an interested observer.)

Apple as a good European corporate citizen

I’m a bit of a Mac fanboy and a follower of Apple blogs and podcasts. I also happen to work for the European Union. The Apple blogosphere is abuzz with the news that Apple has been fined €13 billion by the European Commission for breaking EU state aid rules. There has been a lot of comment from people who know the tech industry intimately, certainly better than I know it. What I bring to the party is my knowledge of the EU, what it’s there for, its politics, and how it works.

I don’t work in the European Commission’s state aid department, and if I did I wouldn’t be allowed to write this blog. I’m writing this in a personal capacity as a private individual with a bit of specialised knowledge and the usual caveats apply. I offer no opinion on the legal merits of the Commission’s case, or Tim Cook’s rebuttal, I just want to talk about the politics of it, prompted by John Gruber’s comment on Daring Fireball.

dfireland

Gruber’s comment on DF

EU state aid rules are there for a reason. They are there to create a level playing field for investors across the world’s largest economic bloc. The aim is to create a stable and nurturing environment in which companies can make long-term investment decisions while citizens can enjoy a certain quality of life. EU state aid rules are there to stop national and regional governments engaging in a race to the bottom, sacrificing tax revenue and services in order to attract business which might otherwise have invested elsewhere in the EU.

You might not like these state aid rules, you might not even agree with the principle, but the rules are there because EU Member States chose to adopt them and if they choose to change them, or abandon them, they can. What they can’t do is sign up to them and then flout them. The European Commission’s job is to enforce the rules, and if the European Commission spots (or thinks it spots) an infringement and then neglects to act it is failing at its job.

Ireland has famously attracted giant tech investors and with good reason. It has a talented work force, excellent infrastructure, and an investment-friendly political culture. Since Ireland joined the European Union in 1973, European taxpayers have poured around 20 billion US dollars into its building its infrastructure and training its workforce – influencing Apple’s decision to invest in Ireland.

As an EU member, Ireland has been one of the big beneficiaries of its generous regional policy. It has also signed up to a whole host of other rules – and been involved in setting those rules, through the EU’s twin-chambered legislature (Council and Parliament). The EU’s member states can’t cherry-pick, something which the UK’s Brexit advocates are finding out. You want to be in the club, you pay the membership fee and you obey the club rules.

Corporations pay tax not least because corporations benefit from taxpayer-funded state provision – universities churning out graduates, roads and railways to get those graduates to work, street lighting, waste collection, etc etc. Apple makes a staggering amount of money because it makes fantastic products. The European Union’s taxpayers have helped it to do that. (Just one example: Jony Ive was educated through the British state system.)

Corporate taxation is a hugely sensitive issue, especially since the Crash in 2008. Apple knows this. Whether or not it is judged to have obeyed the letter of the law in how it pays taxes in Europe, European citizens are looking at Apple and asking themselves whether it has respected the spirit of the law. Apple needs to stop playing the victim and start acting the good corporate citizen that it aspires to be.

European consolidation and disintegration, past and future

hadrianswall

I spent last week walking along the line of Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England, the fortification built on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian to mark the Empire’s northern boundary. I took it as an opportunity to reflect on a united Europe and a fractured Britain (then and now).

For a bit of fun, here is a map of the Roman Empire at around the time the wall was built and a map of the European Union as it might look a few years from now. Spot the key differences on the north-western periphery!

RomanEmpire

Roman Empire c 120AD

eu-map-2016

European Union c 2020AD

Katie Low wrote about the eerie parallels between ancient Roman and modern British politics on this blog a couple of months ago. Spotting parallels and patterns is one of the reasons we find history so fascinating. At its peak, Rome delivered a period of prosperity, stability, and security unrivalled in Europe’s history until the mid-20th century. It did so through a complex political structure which delivered effective administration and the rule of law throughout its diverse territory made up of many nations, all of whom enjoyed (from 212 AD) Roman citizenship.

Political consolidation might not appeal to nationalists but it makes a lot of sense for anyone in search of peace and prosperity. What’s more, it is inevitable. Take a look at this map of conflicts throughout recorded history. Note how concentrated they are in Europe compared to, say, China with its much longer history of political consolidation.

battles

4,500 years of human conflict

Rome’s period of peak success was relatively short-lived, just under a hundred years from the succession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius. The EU has had around sixty years. Its citizens have enjoyed a period of high quality of life which we now take for granted. Again and again we hear from anti-EU nationalists the argument that we don’t need the EU any more, that any success it has had in resolving centuries-old conflict among European states is now baked in and irreversible. Any student of history should know better.

(Some more photos of my walk along Hadrian’s Wall are in this Flickr album.)

Eheu fugaces

Here is a (very) loose, free translation of one of my favourite poems, Ode 2.14 by Horace. The original Latin follows, beneath the translation. Horace is poking fun at his friend Postumus for his religious devotion and materialist tendencies. I like it because it reminds us of our transience, and that we should enjoy life, not allow ourselves to be scared into seclusion.

 

Alas, Postumus, the fleeing years slip away;
Going to church won’t stave off
Wrinkles, looming senility, inevitable death,

However many offerings you make, my friend,
To pitiless Hades, whose dark sea
Hems in even superhuman monsters,

The sea we all must sail one day,
All of us who enjoy Earth’s gifts,
Be we bankers or beggars.

In vain we avoid terrorist hotspots,
In vain we refuse helicopter travel,
In vain we wear jumpers in autumn.

Visit the sluggish River Styx we must,
Underworld celebrity spotting,
Watching their eternal damnation.

You’ll have to leave your house, your charming spouse,
And you won’t take that garden with you,
Except those awful flowers they’ll put on your grave.

Your heir, so much worthier than you,
Will binge on that claret collection you’ve kept under lock and key,
Spilling it on your carpet; much more fun than communion wine.

Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume,
labuntur anni, nec pietas moram
rugis et instanti senectae
adferet indomitaeque morti;

non, si trecenis, quotquot eunt dies,
amice, places illacrimabilem
Plutona tauris, qui ter amplum
Geryonen Tityonque tristi

compescit unda – scilicet omnibus,
quicumque terrae munere vescimur,
enaviganda, sive reges
sive inopes erimus coloni.

Frustra cruento Marte carebimus
fractisque rauci fluctibus Hadriae,
frustra per autumnos nocentem
corporibus metuemus Austrum.

Visendus ater flumine languido
Cocytos errans et Danai genus
infame damnatusque longi
Sisyphus Aeolides laboris.

LInquenda tellus et domus et placens
uxor, neque harum quas colis arborum
te praeter invisas cupressos
ulla brevem dominum sequetur.

Absumet heres Caecuba dignior
servata centum clavibus et mero
tinguet pavimentum superbo
pontificum potiore cenis.

Two Breakups and a Funeral

In the last year I have gone through two traumatic breakups and a painful bereavement.

A year ago my father died. The loss of a parent is devastating and life-changing. But he had lived a full and long life, he was suffering, and so was my family. We all have to go one day. My dad’s day had come. My grief was laced with relief and acceptance.

Earlier this year, my partner of three years ended our relationship. I fell into a (thankfully short-lived) depression. I felt for a while as if my world had disintegrated, I felt rudderless. But on some level I knew that it had been necessary, that better times were ahead, that my ex had been brave to act, and that she was hurting too.

Last week the UK chose to leave the European Union. This doesn’t feel the same. I don’t love the EU like I loved my father and my partner. But I do love it, and this is personal. I believe in the EU. I work as an EU public servant because of that belief – it is, to use an unfashionable word, my vocation. For at least thirty years it has been the leitmotiv to my life. And now my homeland has rejected it, possibly fatally wounding it. I am beside myself with anger and grief. This isn’t the euthanising of a loving but flawed relationship, nor the end to a loved one’s terminal suffering. This is a cold-hearted killing. The trigger was pulled by people who had no real understanding of what they were doing, and the gun was being pointed by cynical, manipulative narcissists and psychopaths. Around me I see shocked people in denial, anger, grief. I don’t know if I will ever progress to acceptance.

[Guest Post] Late Republican Rome and the UK today: a few thoughts

A bit of a departure for this blog – and a very exciting one – here is a guest post by my friend and fellow former classicist, Katie Low, on parallels between modern British and ancient late republican Roman politics.

As a British citizen living in Brussels, I have observed the events in the UK of the past week with dismay and, from Thursday afternoon onwards, utter horror. Some very striking historical parallels have been drawn: most notably, many people have compared the ‘Breaking Point’ poster unveiled by UKIP on Wednesday with images from a Nazi propaganda film. A consciousness of the past is only one of the many things that will, I hope, prevent what happened in the 1930s being played out again today: the apparent simplicity of such parallelisms is both helpful and unhelpful. History leaves us with as many questions as answers.

Being a western European born in the mid-1980s, however, with all the privilege that implies, I am struggling to find a frame of reference for what is happening. In no context have I ever witnessed the febrile atmosphere, the stunts that go beyond parody, the  hateful rhetoric expressed both in formal contexts and in a thousand different variations in the streets and online – and what now looks like the willingness to kill for (abhorrent) ideological reasons – that have gripped the UK. In my previous career I studied Roman history and historiography, and it is in the ancient past that I am trying to make sense of all this.

As I read about the past week’s events and the opinions they have generated I keep thinking of one particular period: the late Roman Republic, roughly the years between the defeat of Rome’s main rival Carthage in 146 BC and the civil wars ultimately won at the battle of Actium in 33 by the man who became the first emperor. Of course, as with the 1930s, ancient Rome cannot be easily mapped onto the present, and it is highly unlikely that the UK will end up with an Augustus of its own. But there are many individual points of comparison.

Several ancient historians supposed that the defeat of Carthage meant Romans could no longer focus on an external enemy and thus fell to fighting each other: in the UK, while polarised politics are of course nothing new, the ‘reliability’ of the Cold War has been replaced by perceived and real threats from many different sources. Then, as the first century BC drew on, powerful leaders such as Pompey, Crassus and Julius Caesar outgrew the confines of the hierarchical political system that the republic had maintained for centuries and began to establish their own popular power bases. Finally, while making a glib link between the unutterably tragic death of Jo Cox and the assassination of Caesar in 44 would be entirely wrong, I would stress that the latter event foreshadowed subsequent  political murders of emperors that achieved no systemic change and were generally carried out for less than noble motives.

It was another assassination, however, that the terrible thing that happened on Thursday first brought to mind. In 91 BC, another Roman politician was murdered, the tribune Marcus Livius Drusus (once again, I am not drawing  a detailed parallel with recent events: the specific cases are far more different than similar, but the broader similarities are what interest me). At this point, Rome was a troubled place. After the attempts of the 130s and 120s by the reforming tribunes Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus to ease inequality in Roman society had ended in civil unrest and their violent deaths, tension had continued to build, and additional strife was brewing amongst the city-states on the Italian peninsula who were allied to Rome but did not enjoy the privileges of citizenship.

Drusus, who as tribune represented the common people but, like virtually all magistrates, came from the upper classes, seems to have pursued a mixed programme. He proposed measures to reinforce the authority of the senate, but also a law that would have provided land for the impoverished working classes, and he also intended to grant citizenship to Rome’s Italian allies. The sources for this period are not comprehensive and his motives not entirely clear (he was not a straightforward popular champion), but his assassination by an unknown assailant unleashed armed revolt by the allied cities who saw no other way of gaining full recognition from Rome. The subsequent Social War (socius is Latin for ‘ally’) lasted three years and was destructive and bloody. Historians have disagreed over whether the independent confederation established by the allies was their ultimate aim or simply a base from which to fight for citizenship, but although it was eventually granted to them, the conflict segued into a full-blown Roman civil war, a precursor to the ones that ended the republic itself.

Once again, I do not believe this will happen in the UK: 91 BC and AD 2016 are very far apart in all kinds of ways. But I can’t help thinking they have elements in common. Inequality and disenfranchisement, mass and elite alienation, identity politics – indeed, the dichotomy between the Italian allies wanting to join Rome but on their preferred terms, and seeking to ‘go it alone’ as an independent nation, looks oddly familiar amid the current debate over British membership of the EU. As I said, history tends to provide more questions than answers. It suggests, though, that once conventional political stops offering solutions, things may never be the same again.

The Age of Unlightenment

This was the advice from my friend Mary this morning:unlightenmentA snapshot of where we are on the morning of 14 June 2016: a disturbed man apparently driven to self-hate murders fifty people in a club; populist politicians clamber over the corpses to score points; religious fundamentalists claim the atrocity for their own. A law firm boasts of its victory over families trying to secure a future for their children who have already been dealt a shit hand by life. And my country seems intent upon an unimaginably stupid act of self-harm, egged on by charlatans, liars, demagogues, and self-serving narcissists.

I feel as if I’m watching our civilisation’s lights dim. The Age of Unlightenment.

Twenty-two three

22 March is my sister’s birthday. Now, it’s something else too.

I was still getting ready to leave for work this morning when the news came in first about the bombs at Brussels airport – where I’d been at 11pm the previous night – and then at Maelbeek metro station, just a short distance from my flat. Jo begged me to stay at home, and that’s probably what I should have done, but I didn’t. I walked in to work along eerily normal streets where the people I see every day looked like they always look, or perhaps just a little bemused and quiet. Police cars with men wearing balaclavas tear past, sirens wailing. But that’s another thing we see fairly often in my part of town, given the regular Summits. I get to the office and once I’m at my desk it feels fairly normal. I check Twitter and Facebook. Friends all over the world are messaging me to ask if I’m OK. I feel like a fraud. I’m in the middle of this thing but basically I’m just fine, unaffected. And then I start to cry. I can’t explain it. Fifteen people are dead at the metro station I can see out of my window. People are dead at the airport I flew into yesterday night. It could so very, very easily have been me. But it wasn’t. I feel guilt. I feel disconnection. I feel very strange. I dread finding out who has in fact been killed, and injured. This is a small town, this will touch us all.

Nearly fifteen years ago, days after 9/11, I was in a large crowd gathered on rue de la Loi outside the Berlaymont and the Justus Lipsius to show solidarity and sympathy with America. Fifteen years later, I look out of my window at the same view. There are barricades, I count at least a dozen armed police, and I can see four soldiers in full body armour carrying assault rifles. If Osama Bin Laden could see this he would say to himself “mission accomplished”.

demos

That “demos” thing

Sooner or later, every Brexit debate hits the “demos” wall. The following conversation is a classic example:

 

Its critics will say that the European Union is not democratic, and therefore lacks legitimacy. Its defenders will contest this, as I did in this post. We claim that, actually, it has all the characteristics of a healthy democracy, and arguably then some (compared to certain EU Member States). No no, its critics argue, none of these characteristics count because they are meaningless without a “demos”. The EU, they say, doesn’t have a demos; and so it can’t be a democracy.

This is a tautology and a circular argument. They criticise us for not being democratic while in the same breath arguing that we cannot be democratic by definition, and that we should therefore not even try. The very fact that we try seems to be what infuriates them. The more the EU attempts to advance its democratic credentials, the more state-like it seems, the more we anger those who insist that sovereignty and statehood must be limited to existing nation states. Why? we ask. BECAUSE DEMOS, they yell, as if this is self-evident (which to them apparently it is).

For a long time now I have wanted to tackle this argument, but I have never found the right way to come at it. I think it’s because we are simply talking past each other, in different languages. Theirs is the emotional language of nationalism, I think, and it just doesn’t make sense to me. What defines a “demos”? The Oxford English Dictionary definition says that a demos is “the populace as a political unit, especially in a democracy”, which hardly helps – what defines a “political unit”? If the EU has all the trappings of a political unit, then isn’t it one? By specifically excluding the UK from the quest for “ever closer political union”, has David Cameron effectively excluded the UK from an EU demos and thereby validated the “out” camp’s argument in a bizarre form of Pyrrhic victory?

We need to dig deeper. What makes people feel that they belong to a political unit? Is it language? Several EU Member States have more than one official language and all certainly have citizens whose first language is not the majority language – are those citizens excluded from the national “demos”? Is it a shared history? Clearly not, I won’t even bother dismantling that argument but will simply point to Norman Davies’ excellent book Vanished Kingdoms. Perhaps it’s shared culture? That’s also hard to argue in our multicultural and yet monocultural modern world. I’ve come to the conclusion that a demos is self-defining and therefore largely meaningless unless you are already part of that self-selected demos. Playing the “demos” card is like playing the joker, it only works if everyone playing the game has agreed a common set of rules.

I could end this post here. But that would be a touch too dismissive. Clearly, this does mean something to lots of people, and I have to try to understand. Many people feel disconnected from the European tier of government and have no sense that they belong to a continental “demos” or political community. Evidence for this is the poor turnout at European elections, with many of those who do vote tending to do so on national issues. Clearly, many of us in Brussels feel defensive about this and so we invest a lot of effort in creating democratic institutions and attempting to communicate more effectively with citizens. (On this subject, see Jon Worth’s article on the EU’s efforts at comms.)

Not having a magic solution to offer, let me instead offer these thoughts, in no particular order:

  • The harder we try to legitimise EU government by giving it the trappings of democracy, the less people seem to like it. So why do we bother?
  • Are we not falling into the populist trap of fetishising democracy? (By which I mean misrepresenting our representative democracy as a direct one, and glorifying the people’s actually rather limited though important safeguarding role in the complex process of modern government – which I talk about here.)
  • In a functional, modern state there are multiple tiers of government which each have legitimacy with a given ‘political unit’ (or demos), and we are all as citizens members of more than one demos. The trouble with the people who claim that the EU has no demos is that they actively choose to exclude themselves from that demos; and I think that these are generally the same people who dismiss the other tiers of government too. These are the Westminster exceptionalists who get in a tizzy over the West Lothian Question. They cannot see the wood for the trees. I can’t lose any sleep over their inability to see the bigger picture, and it would be a crying shame if they took the UK out of the EU because of their tunnel vision.