Last year, before Brexit negotiations got started, I wrote this short piece outlining my thoughts – as someone with many years of experience negotiating with and on behalf of the EU – on how the UK should approach these talks. It is no coincidence that my friend and former colleague Steve Bullock shared similar thoughts a couple of months back. We are now well into the negotiation phase. How has the UK side been doing? Time to take stock.
Those negotiating tips I gave can be boiled down to three golden rules:
Goodwill is your most valuable resource, hoard it and spend it sparingly.
As I said, you negotiate better with partners, not with opponents. International negotiations are rarely a zero-sum game, and usually the two sides will have broadly overlapping objectives or goals which are for the most part compatible, mutually achievable. For example, both the UK and the EU want a future trading relationship that is as frictionless as possible. If we accept that, outside the EU, there is going to be some friction compared to the status quo, nevertheless it is definitely possible to find a way to reduce it while respecting each other’s red lines. But to do that you need to be working together towards this common goal.
From the outset, the UK has burned through goodwill as if it were an inexhaustible, ever-renewable resource. It is not. Compiling a list of examples demonstrating how the UK has damaged goodwill since the referendum would take me all day and fill far too much space. Just off the top of my head: accusing the EU of meddling in the UK’s election; ad hominem attacks on Juncker and Barnier; treating EU citizens living in the UK with contempt; telling the EU it can “go whistle” for the money which the UK had already committed to spending; threatening to withhold cooperation on security and counter-terrorism… the list goes on and on. None of this was necessary, none of it did anything whatsoever to advance the UK’s negotiating objectives, all it has done is squander goodwill where we most desperately need it.
The first advice given to anyone going into an auction is: know your limit. Self-awareness is generally a good idea when undertaking any project. Know what you want, know what you need, know what you are capable of getting, and have a sense of how you are going to achieve it.
“And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” The UK is hopelessly divided. And yet not only have British leaders done nothing to try to mend that schism, they have repeatedly and consistently denied that it even exists. The country is coming together behind Brexit, says Theresa May, again and again, against all the evidence. This comes across as panglossian self-delusion because it’s plain to everyone else, inside and outside the UK, that it’s not true. But not only is the kingdom divided against itself, so is the government. Minister briefs against minister, civil servant after civil servant quits, policy papers take an eternity to see the light of day, and when they do they are contradictory, implausible, short on detail, or just plain vacuous. Positions are taken, then reversed, then reasserted. Stakeholders cannot trust anything they are told because they are told very little and what little they are told is demonstrably false or contradicted by previous and subsequent statements.
Know your negotiating partner.
This isn’t rocket science. Good intelligence is always essential. Know your opposite number’s strengths and weaknesses, know their red lines, know their personalities. Luckily for the UK, it is negotiating with an organisation it knows intimately from the inside and which shares its DNA. So how is it that the UK shows again and again that it doesn’t really understand the EU and even that it doesn’t have much interest in understanding the EU? Oh, I know that key people on the UK side know the EU very well – civil servants have spent years working with and often in the EU institutions and they are not stupid. But these are the same civil servants that keep quitting, or being shunted aside. “The UK has had enough of experts” we are told. The German car industry will ride to the rescue, we are told. We will have our cake and eat it, we are told. We can be in the Single Market and yet not in the Single Market, we are told. The Prime Minister scorns an invitation to speak to the European Parliament but goes instead to Florence to give a speech. She gets to work on Merkel and Macron rather than Tusk and Juncker. Sat here in Brussels watching events unfold, the UK government’s actions scream ignorance of basic EU realities. They scream wishful thinking. The UK government seems to be dealing with a fantasy EU that resembles the caricature presented in British tabloids, not the real EU of which it has been a core member for over four decades.
This morning as I write this, Twitter is once again abuzz with something Boris Johnson has said. He thinks Brexit talks will fail and that Theresa May “will be humiliated”. “Nobody ever beats the EU in a negotiation” he apparently ‘told a friend’. If he really thinks this, it’s odd that he worked so hard to put his country into a negotiation with the EU, and then to frame this negotiation in needlessly confrontational, zero sum terms, so that the UK can only win if the EU loses.
Boris is right, insofar as he says that the EU rarely emerges from a negotiation as a loser. But he is utterly wrong if he thinks this means that the EU’s negotiating partners must necessarily then be the losers. As I said back in October last year, the EU’s default approach to negotiations is to find a way for both sides to win. This is the best guarantee of success. By spurning this approach from the outset, the UK has engineered its own probable defeat.
It is this, I think, that has most shocked and alienated the EU side. Cooperative, collegiate, consensus building is so baked into the way we work that it has become a reflex. After all, it’s why the EU was created in the first place. In our daily lives, we look for solutions that work for multiple and diverse interested parties. If we did not do this, we would not be here. The UK has been part of this for forty years and has generally been a very good player of the game. In Parliament Committees, in Council Working Groups, in Commission inter-service meetings, Brits have earned a reputation for finding creative solutions, skilfully drafting inclusive language, and putting the emphasis on pragmatism and results. The referendum result was a massive shock, yes, but surely the British would deal with it in a pragmatic and sensible way? There was a widespread assumption that the UK would implement the referendum result in its typically sober, intelligent way to minimise shock to itself and the rest of the EU and build a solid foundation for a mutually advantageous future relationship. The opposite has happened. This is simply shocking and will have a lasting impact on the country’s influence and reputation.