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.)

5 thoughts on “Brexit: a negotiator’s observations

  1. Gerry Morrow

    All good common sense, but you have already seemed to have taken sides.

    “Goodwill forms an essential part of one’s negotiating capital.”

    May has said she wants to build a strong relationship with Europe and there should be give and take in any negotiations.

    Juncker as said, “Pfff” when asked how things had gone with Mrs May.

    A French commissioner has demanded that the talks be held in French, no demand has come from the UK with respect to the language, although English is the most spoken language in the EC bureaucracy.

    Tusk has said there can be no compromise on membership of the single market without freedom of movement.

    Francois Hollande has said the UK will have to pay for leaving the EU.

    And there are daily threats from the multiple Presidents of the EU.

    “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.”

    The UK has laid out it’s objectives in that Mrs May has declared she wants a strong partner of the EU after brexit. No such declaration has come from the EU.

    The UK put out a position paper on EU citizens living in the UK in which it stated categorically that it wanted to preserve the rights of EU citizens post brexit.. No such declaration about the status of UK citizens living in the EU has come from the EU, unnecessarily putting pressure on UK expats in the EU.

    The absence of such easily made statements, to me at least, implies pre-disposed malevolence in any upcoming negotiations.

    Of course malevolence doesn’t necessarily mean an agreement that is good for both parties can’t be arrived at. The plain truth for all the sabre rattling coming from the EU is that a disastrous deal for the UK would be a disastrous deal for the EU and a good deal for the UK should be a good deal for the EU.

    The best deal for the UK and the EU would be a free trade agreement, which will take a long time, and which the EU won’t discuss, even informally, before A50. It will take a long time to get a FTA with the EU, so the next best solution is to compromise and find an ad hoc relationship until the FTA is in place (notwithstanding the fact that Walloons have the right to veto it apparently).

    The worst situation for the UK is that it will have to trade under the WTO’s Most Favoured Nation rules. Which will mean a weighted tariff of 4% on goods between the EU and the UK. Since the UK runs an £80Bn + deficit with the EU this is pretty bad for the EU as well. Especially Germany. Moreover the UK gains an instant £11Bn net by not paying the membership fee

    You’re right in everything you say, but it’s the EU that’s breaking all the common sense advice you’ve given above, it’s the EU that’s sabre rattling and it’s the EU that seems unconcerned about getting the best deal for Europe and the UK.

    Rule one of any negotiation is to go into it looking for the best deal for both parties, as you’ve pointed out. All the evidence is that the EU is not approaching these negotiations looking for the best deal for everyone.

    You should send this article to the 4 Presidents and M. Hollande, they’re the ones who need to understand it.

    Reply
    1. Chris Kendall Post author

      Thanks for your comments Gerry. Some thoughts in return:

      A French commissioner has demanded that the talks be held in French, no demand has come from the UK with respect to the language, although English is the most spoken language in the EC bureaucracy.

      Barnier (a former Commissioner, not a current one, and he will be the Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator) is perfectly within his rights to use French as his working language during negotiations, and the British side is perfectly within its rights to use English. Whether simultaneous interpretation will be needed is something to be established between the negotiating parties. French is a working language of the EU institutions and widely used. A sound approach to the negotiations by the UK side would have been to stay silent on the issue, or to welcome it, rather than give the appearance of being disobliging and arrogant which is what they did by questioning Barnier’s right (and it is his right). Especially as there’s absolutely nothing the UK can do about it.

      Tusk has said there can be no compromise on membership of the single market without freedom of movement.

      He’s right, it’s in the Treaty. He’s stating the obvious which is a service to the UK whose interests can hardly be served by labouring under a collective illusion that they can have their cake and eat it.

      Francois Hollande has said the UK will have to pay for leaving the EU.

      Again, a statement of the obvious. Politically, it would be insane for the remaining EU member states to suggest anything else.

      And there are daily threats from the multiple Presidents of the EU.

      Statements of fact are not ‘threats’. If you ask to join my club, and I say ‘yes but you will have to pay a £60 membership fee and abide by the rules’, that is not a threat.

      The UK has laid out it’s objectives in that Mrs May has declared she wants a strong partner of the EU after brexit. No such declaration has come from the EU.

      Two thoughts here: firstly, no the UK has not laid out its objectives, that is part of the problem, we are all in the dark as to the UK’s objectives, apparently even the UK leadership isn’t clear in this regard; secondly, the UK is the one wishing to change the status quo, it is for the UK to say what it wants, not the EU. Despite this, EU leaders have gone out of their way to accept the UK’s referendum result and to describe in detail what the UK can have, and what it can’t. This is hardly an act of ‘malevolence’ as you describe it.

      The UK put out a position paper on EU citizens living in the UK in which it stated categorically that it wanted to preserve the rights of EU citizens post brexit.. No such declaration about the status of UK citizens living in the EU has come from the EU, unnecessarily putting pressure on UK expats in the EU.

      I’m not aware of any such position paper. I have seen a number of (contradictory) statements coming from members of the UK government. As above, it is not for the EU to do the UK’s work for it. The UK wants to change things, let it make its proposals for change and then we will see what can be agreed. The only pressure on UK migrants (speaking as one myself) is coming from the UK.

      The absence of such easily made statements, to me at least, implies pre-disposed malevolence in any upcoming negotiations.

      Forgive me but your use of vocabulary suggests an attitude poisoned by years of negative and confrontational British press coverage. There is (and has been) plenty of deep-seated malevolence directed at its neighbours by the British press and politicians over the years, and we’re all suffering the result of this now. There is no malevolence in the opposite direction, however benevolence (of which there has always been plenty) is being seriously eroded.

      The best deal for the UK and the EU would be a free trade agreement, which will take a long time, and which the EU won’t discuss, even informally, before A50. It will take a long time to get a FTA with the EU, so the next best solution is to compromise and find an ad hoc relationship until the FTA is in place (notwithstanding the fact that Walloons have the right to veto it apparently).

      The EU *cannot* discuss an FTA before the Article 50 procedure has concluded for the very obvious reason that it cannot negotiate while wearing a blindfold. You can’t negotiate a fee with builders before you have agreed what it is they have to build.

      The worst situation for the UK is that it will have to trade under the WTO’s Most Favoured Nation rules. Which will mean a weighted tariff of 4% on goods between the EU and the UK. Since the UK runs an £80Bn + deficit with the EU this is pretty bad for the EU as well. Especially Germany. Moreover the UK gains an instant £11Bn net by not paying the membership fee

      The EU27 export far less to to the UK than the UK to the EU27 – this is a very unequal relationship. Regardless, it is obviously in the EU’s economic interests to have liberalised trade with a relatively wealthy neighbour. What many UK commentators miss though is the obvious political context. The EU is a political project – always has been, always will be. Free trade is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Securing tariff-free trade with the UK at the expense of the EU’s future would be insane and no serious EU politician or business leader would choose this. Eventually the British will be obliged to understand this, far too late for their own good sadly.

      Rule one of any negotiation is to go into it looking for the best deal for both parties, as you’ve pointed out. All the evidence is that the EU is not approaching these negotiations looking for the best deal for everyone.

      The EU is approaching these negotiations looking for the best deal for itself, obviously. Normally, in negotiations, that would mean a deal which also works for the negotiating partner. It is very much in the UK’s interest as the junior party in this negotiation, holding very few strong cards, to persuade the EU that its best bet is to opt for a consensual rather than confrontational strategy.

      Reply
      1. Zen Master

        Thank you for an excellent response to the same old misconceptions of Brexalots.
        The EU from day 1 said it wanted a constructive relationship.
        It said everything had to be legally precise – that includes any promises on citizens rights – a vague promise from UK minister doesn’t count.
        It said it could not start any negotiations until A50 – there was absolutely no need or sense in it starting any earlier.
        It made it clear there would be one point of contact for all negotiations.
        It has been incredibly polite throughout – with the exception of the much needed expression of frustration last week.
        The UK government has been an embarrassment throughout.
        The best thing it could have done would have been to go to Europe as soon after 23 June as possible and say “how do we make this work for both of us” and then listened very carefully to the response.
        The UK has ignored all friendly advice on how to get any deal – let alone a good deal.
        May has now admitted publicly that failure will be detrimental to our economy and the future of our children (her paranoid statement yesterday ended with the much overlooked statement of the bleedin’ obvious).
        We are now reliant on the EU’s last reserves of goodwill to see us through to something other than a cliff edge.

        Reply

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