The Brexit negotiations aren’t about winning, but about solving a problem

Negotiating’s easy, right? You play hardball, you don’t give any ground and if the other side look happy about the outcome then it’s probably because they’ve pulled a fast one on you. It’s all about beating them and winning.

Except, of course, it’s not.

This view of negotiation might nowadays be termed the Trump model – inasmuch as it’s a model at all – but it’s also the one that most people might think of, when they think of negotiation at all.

The reason for that is partly because we often think about negotiations as being about money, which readily lends itself to this kind of haggling: my gain must be your loss, and vice versa.

It’s also partly because people often tend to be a bit competitive and think about themselves first.

However, just because something’s common, doesn’t mean it’s right. And so it is here.

Those who study or work in negotiation don’t operate this way, but instead think of it as an exercise in problem-solving.

That might sound a bit fluffy, whereas it’s actually much more rigorous and hard-headed than that, as can be seen in the basic ideas that come with it.

Crucially, the negotiation isn’t a competition, but a collaboration to tackle an issue that both sides face. Put differently, you’re both on the same side of the table.

A logical extension of that idea is that you have to care about ‘them’ and what ‘they’ want. Indeed, the more you can get inside the other party’s head and understand how they see things and what motivates their actions, the better chances that you’ll find an outcome that speaks to both your needs and theirs.

That doesn’t mean you have to like each other, but rather learn to separate the people from the problem: you’re not trying to solve the former.

Moreover, it also requires you to be more open about your thinking, so they can understand where you’re coming from and take that more properly into account. It’s the very opposite of poker, which is why all the criticisms in the UK about not ‘showing your hand’ have been so misplaced.

One’s a card game where secrecy is a fundamental requirement; the other’s an attempt to secure mutually advantageous outcomes.

And that’s perhaps the central difference.

Instead of seeing negotiation as zero-sum (your gains must mean my losses), experience practitioners see it as usually being positive-sum (by solving the problem, we can both gain for it). That matters because it not only encourages more cooperative behaviour, but it also drives outcomes that are better all round.

Of course, all this abstraction is fine, but how does it work in the case of Brexit?

At the technical level, a lot of this is going on. The 80% agreement on the Withdrawal Agreement that Michel Barnier talks about was built very largely on such approaches, with each side scoping specific issues and seeking out areas of common ground.

But that remaining 20% has been characterised much more by the Trump model, with intransigence and less than full clarity about underlying intentions (especially on the British side).

Those problems really reflect on the unusual situation of the British government, which was handed a decision in the referendum and then has had to work backwards to construct a justification for leaving the EU, something that remains very much a work in progress.

In that sense, the persistent desire of the UK to talk about the future relationship, ahead of the outstanding Article 50 issues, makes a certain amount of sense: without knowing where you’re going to, it’s rather hard to say how you’ll get there, or even which direction you should head off in.

Here we run into the second major problem around Brexit, namely that it isn’t a positive-sum exercise, at least not in the short-term.

The UK’s withdrawal will necessarily impose costs on both sides, be that through the transition to new arrangements or the necessarily less-comprehensive market integration that will ensue (whatever the form of a deal). Maybe in the longer-run there are gains to be secured, but not just yet.

Instead, Article 50 is about apportioning costs.

Now here you might argue that we should therefore be more Trumpish: make the other side carry the can. And you certainly see echoes of that on both sides of the Channel, with talk of how it’ll hurt them more than us.

But, once again, that’s a blinkered view.

Article 50 isn’t a discrete and isolated exercise. It’s just one step in the on-going relationship between the EU and the UK, so what happens now will shape what happens next.

With that in mind, trying to find a transparent and equitable way of sharing out the costs of a more-distant relationship offers the best (or least-worst, at least) foundation for those future discussions.

For either side to treat this as an opportunity to punish the other, or to take advantage, might secure some passing benefit, but will come with a long-term cost.

If the next five months don’t see more of these logics coming to the fore, then both the UK and the EU will be poorer for it, both materially and politically.

By Dr Simon Usherwood, Deputy Director of the UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally featured in Politico.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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