Brexit: The theory and practice of negotiation

04 December 2017 - by Quintin


The high stakes of today’s decision on whether ‘sufficient progress’ has been achieved on the initial three strands of the EU-UK Brexit negotiations took many by surprise.

It shouldn’t have.

Most negotiations, whether within a family or the workplace, or at community level, take a certain course: ‘I want this, they want that, how can I trade-off for the best deal possible?’ – usually promising ‘win-win’, but often secretly wishing for as close to ‘win-lose’ as practicable.

In this case, however, even the basics remain unclear. All lists of negotiation advice include the seemingly straightforward: ‘What is the other side’s stated bottom line?’Who can answer this, lucidly, when the UK position is necessarily partially hidden, both for reasons of confidentiality, and because the Conservative Party, government and Brexit lobby have themselves differing aspirations or expectations?

Take, then, the EU 27, who are obviously supportive of Ireland – a front line member – but probably deeply conscious that Ireland represents fewer than 1 per cent of EU citizens. Equally, the DUP looks nervously to Westminster, conscious that Northern Ireland has fewer than 3 per cent of UK residents. Does each mothership have vastly larger fish to fry?

Even if we delve deeper into what the theory calls ‘Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement’ (a BATNA), we see that crashing out of the EU onto WTO trade arrangements remains acceptable – even desirable – to some Brexiteers, while horrific to many others. And on the other side, does the EU wish to ‘punish’ the leaving state, if only ‘pour encourager les autres’ or does it wish not to ‘cut off the nose from its face’, in the eyes of others?

On this thin ice skate the negotiators, with their cheerleaders continually making extreme demands to increase pressure on the other side (remember John Taylor’s “40-foot pole” in the week of Good Friday 1998?), sometimes with threats and boycotts (e.g. Sammy Wilson last week). Some are characterised as spoilers, intent on destroying the process for their own ends; others offer genuine notes of concern.

That is why, especially when the stakes are so high, negotiations between large, complex coalitions of interest are so often unpredictable, lengthy and fragmented.