To this former EU negotiator, the UK’s chance of a good Brexit deal looks slim

Being “tough” and being “difficult” are not the same thing. Being tough can work, but only if deployed sparingly at strategic points in negotiations. Being difficult for difficult’s sake never works. It simply breaks trust and creates resentment leading to a justifiable unwillingness in partners to compromise.

Successful negotiation in the EU is not, contrary to popular belief, about thumping the table and demanding you get everything you want for nothing in return. It’s also not about undermining your opposite numbers (oppos in Brussels-speak), or insulting their intelligence by making outlandish claims. Yet, in preparing for Brexit negotiations, the UK government has done all of these things with, it seems, gusto and pride.

Trust is key to a successful negotiation. Both sides must know that the other is negotiating in good faith. Both may know that walking away is an option in extremis, but openly threatening this undermines trust that a solution is being sought. Any compromises or concessions require trust and good faith.

Understanding your oppos is essential. Each has a complex set of constraints and expectations from their own side. Understanding their position allows you to identify solutions that satisfy their concerns and meet your objectives. If you have put yourself in the position that your overall line is fundamentally incompatible with that of your oppos, you have already lost.

An oppos’ issue with one of your lines may be less fundamental than it looks. You should be guiding your oppos towards being able to support, or at least not block, something as close to your preferred outcome as possible. The process is a long, complex one, and actions at any point will not be forgotten later.

Positions should be clearly prioritised, with built-in fallback positions. Everyone wants their priority to be your number one, must be got, can’t be traded priority, but they simply can’t all be. Many will have to be traded, and you should know which can be and for what.

Flexibility must be built into your position from the start. Not everything can be a red line. Oppos respect genuine red lines – they have them too. Claiming that every point is a red line though is crying wolf.

The pre-negotiation phase has been a disaster for the UK. The UK government first tried to divide the EU27, and then, when that didn’t work, set about deliberately breeding resentment and mistrust. The balance of power is such that the EU27 hold almost all the cards, but the government seems in a state of denial about this. Its Cabinet ministers hectored, smeared and threatened the very people they are asking for help and concessions from.

The EU27’s carefully drafted position papers synthesise a multitude of opening positions from 27 governments, the European Parliament, and the Commission. While these papers do not represent a final offer, they equally do not represent a first go at a vague wish list. The UK government knows this. Yet its approach has been to pretend that the EU27’s positions were mere posturing, particularly over the sequencing of negotiations (which the UK caved in on in the first hours of negotiations), citizens’ rights and the Four Freedoms. This was absurd and served to make UK look like it was not a serious negotiator.

Then came the ill-fated “No Deal Better than Bad Deal” rhetoric. This had a disastrous effect on the UK’s credibility, largely because it is demonstrably untrue. Of course the EU27 does not want the UK to walk away with no deal. It would cost them dearly, but they will deal with it if they must. The EU itself and its core principles are more important. Besides, everyone knows that no deal would cost the UK an order of magnitude more than the EU27, so this strategy served only to reduce trust.

The UK government has acted as if the EU27 countries are yet to discover the internet, and don’t have access to UK news. The EU27, though, knows the UK has backed itself into a corner on so many issues that its positions are fundamentally incompatible with the positive outcomes it has said it will get. The EU27 knows that this government will now find it politically impossible to go back with a big exit bill, or accept freedom of movement, or European Court of Justice jurisdiction over anything, no matter what it gets in return.

Ruling out these things publicly, instead of explaining and managing expectations at home, shows the UK government is either willing to lie to its people or genuinely ignorant of the realities. This weakens any sympathetic voices for the UK.

Finally, it really helps to have the arguments, facts and moral high ground on your side in negotiations. The UK has showed again and again that it has none of these. The unwillingness to guarantee citizens’ rights was bad, but the threat to bargain over security cooperation was a moment of appalling moral weakness.

The EU27’s leaders very much want a deal, but the government’s approach has made any desire to look for solutions that suit the UK evaporate. Why bother when they don’t appear to want a deal anyway? Why give concessions when the UK’s constraints are entirely of its own making?

In my view, the chances of this government getting any deal, let alone a good one, in only 21 months, are minimal. But I think it knows this. The Chancellor Philip Hammond, a lone moderate, pleaded for a transitional deal lasting up to four years. The level of complexity is too much for the UK’s Brexit negotiators, their preparations too poor, and the messaging too self-defeating.

I can therefore only conclude that this government’s plan is to walk out of negotiations, which will, of course, be a catastrophe for the UK. And all for want of a little humility, trust, honesty, organisation and understanding. But the government just couldn’t help itself, could it? The negotiators had to be bloody difficult.

Steve Bullock worked at the UK Representation to the EU from 2010-2014 where he negotiated several EU regulations for the UK in EU Council working groups. He has also worked for the European Commission and the Department for International Development’s Europe Department. This article is based on a Twitter thread originally posted here. This was jointly published with the New Statesman.

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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  • robin hood

    The EU are just as guilty as May on this issue of Deal or No deal as they insist on the principle of the 4
    Freedoms if you don’t accept them in their view there is no deal, so they will walk away. If not what else will they do. The stance is also totally oblivious to the fact they are confusing matters with their insistence and interpretation of free movement of what People, free movement of Labour, insist on one or the other, people would accept that if a person has a valid job or offer of a job that would be acceptable. But to insist that anyone could upsticks walk around Europe creating potentially disastrous results by means of terrorism, crime, fraud, exploiting welfare benefit fraud, that could never be accepted.
    The border argument in Ireland I easily solved with little expense really, move full customs checks for all goods to Carrickfergus, Belfast, Larne, and Dublin along with passport checks which you have to do anyway, that enables people to move between the 2 areas freely and if duty is to be collected by either country it is the port area which tend to be end of the line towns that creates no barriers between people, it is the Irish Sea that becomes or safeguard. This is why Great Britain should always look to the sea to be our greatest defence and not Europe

  • JS Mill

    I agree that it is best to approach all negotiations in a respectful and constructive manner; and to avoid table thumping, insults, threats and posturing. But this account seems rather one-sided.

    What about these examples, from the other side of the table?

    1) Refusing to speak to the UK at all until after Article 50 was triggered, thus wasting many valuable months, whilst simultaneously accusing the UK of wasting time.
    2) Rejecting out of hand the UK’s offer to deal with the position of EU and UK expats immediately, and then disingenuously criticising the UK for not dealing with the matter more quickly.
    3) Making outlandish and absurd demands, such as that the rights of EU nationals in the UK should be permanently subject to the jurisdiction of the CJEU – which is both obviously unacceptable, as it would create a sort of special caste of caste of citizen above UK law; and an implicit insult to the impartiality of the UK Courts.
    3) Inventing and relentlessly inflating an ever-larger “Brexit Bill”, without explaining (or even attempting to explain) the legal basis for it, the sole purpose of which appears to be to intimidate and blackmail the UK. I note that when Germany was presented by Trump with a large multi-billion dollar bill for Germany’s supposed backlog in contributions to NATO by Trump, the German Foreign Minister angrily denounced such “intimidatory tactics”. Quite.
    4) Attending an informal dinner with the UK’s PM and Brexit Minister, the purpose of which was to build trust, and then grossly breaching that trust by issuing a one-sided account of the dinner designed to embarrass and insult your hosts.
    5) Repeatedly and regularly briefing the press that the UK is “delusional” or “ridiculous” etc.

    I could go on. The problem with many of the comments on the Brexit process, such as this one, is that they seems to proceed from the assumption that the UK is stupid, ignorant and boorish, whilst the EU Commission behaves in saintly manner wholly above criticism. By all means, criticise the conduct of the negotiations, but if you are going to do it at all, try to maintain some appearance of impartiality.

  • Andy Forbes

    Yes, your description is absolutely spot on – the negotiations have revealed the dreadful vacuum that lies at the heart of the Leave campaign. It’s not surprising, given that the Brexiteers united around one thing – the idea of leaving the EU – without any discussion in detail of what exactly that meant. I suppose if you sincerely believe that the EU brings no benefits to the UK you’ll just thumb your nose at Europe and walk away. I suspect that some Brexiteers were under the illusion that we could leave the EU club and somehow keep all our benefits, although this is patently unrealistic. Now we’re getting beyond the posturing and beyond the fantasy of Britain somehow being so powerful it can dictate terms to the whole of Europe, the sobering reality is beginning to sink in. We voted to leave the EU without any coherent plan of how we were going to actually do it without causing irrevocable damage to the British economy and a permanent decline in Britain’s influence on the world stage. Each stage of the negotiations will demonstrate how weak our position is and remind us of the considerable economic benefits we are about to throw away. Each month that passes will show how little chance we have of making trade deals with anyone else that are anywhere near as favourable as those we already have with the EU. The deal which David Davis brings back in the Autumn of 2018 is going to be a loss-making one. Let’s see how many of the electorate at that point are prepared to support it.

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