The Brexit negotiations: how (ir)rational are they?

Brexit negotiations

Jean-Claude Juncker, Theresa May

As another Brexit deadline passes without a deal being reached – though, thankfully, also without anyone being found dead in a ditch – it is worth reflecting on just what has been undermining these ill-fated negotiations.

While it was always clear that the EU was starting the negotiations from a position of strength, this imbalance was undoubtedly enhanced by a surprisingly good performance on the EU side, and a surprisingly poor performance from the UK.

Consider the timeline.

Theresa May activated Article 50 too early and entered negotiations before the UK had come to an agreement on its objectives; then strategies were deployed – such as trying to turn EU27 countries against each other (when unsurprisingly they remained united throughout) – that backfired.

The resulting deals were repeatedly rejected by the Commons.

A final acceptance is now unlikely, given that the legislative process has been paused.

There is a consensus among observers that the UK side did badly in these negotiations, but less clear is what explains this utter failure.

Some would say that UK politicians knew what they were doing, but were concerned with their own political careers rather than the success of negotiations: May sought to hold onto her position as Prime Minister and to keep the Conservative Party united; while Boris Johnson wanted to use Brexit as a means to becoming the next Prime Minister

However, this argument cannot explain the whole story, especially as getting a deal was in itself essential to most UK actors involved, even from an egoistic perspective – it was needed for May’s political survival, and would have benefited the large majority of UK negotiators, from the technical to the political level.

In forthcoming research, Ben Martill and I propose a different argument: the UK did try to do well in the negotiations, and did try to come up with strategies, but those failed because mistakes were made.

We explore what a psychological approach can tell us about the UK’s lacklustre performance, drawing on a field at the intersection between psychology, politics and economics known as ‘bounded rationality’.

This assumes that human beings are always trying to act in a rational way, but that rationality is bounded by a number of limitation on how well our brain is able to understand each decision that we take.

We often simply don’t know what course of action is best for us, because we don’t have enough information, we don’t process it correctly, or emotions and unhelpful ingrained habits cloud our judgement.

All these limitations can undermine our decisions, and are known as cognitive biases.

We identify four cognitive biases that have impaired the UK’s negotiating behaviour.

The first is fixed-sum error, whereby negotiators fail to understand that the other side has different objectives that could make mutually advantageous trade-offs possible.

This is also known as ‘fixed-pie error’, since it leads to an erroneous assumption that negotiations are zero-sum, and no ‘win-win solution’ is possible – or, to continue the culinary analogy, the more one party gets from the pie, the less is left for the other.

Our interview results show that UK negotiators did not always fully understand the EU’s priorities in this negotiation, and in particular did not realise that the EU’s key objective was to maintain EU unity and avoid Brexit-contagion.

Instead, assuming the EU27 would have the same interest-structure as they did, UK negotiators focused on the economic incentives the other member states had in offering the UK a generous deal, since each of them would lose out under a no deal Brexit.

If the UK side had been aware of the importance attached by the EU to maintaining unity, it would have known that trying to divide the different countries was bound to fail.

A second bias is framing, whereby negotiators are unwittingly influenced by the way in which issues at stake are presented, or ‘framed’, to them.

Thus, if a negotiation is framed as a simple and easy undertaking, in which one side can easily obtain vast benefits, this will affect negotiators’ behaviour.

Although Theresa May had campaigned for Remain, as Prime Minister she adopted the discourse surrounding the Leave campaign, whereby the UK was in a strong position, and would be able to negotiate a deal more advantageous than membership.

This led to unrealistic expectations of what the UK could get from its deal with the EU, and as a result, Theresa May set unrealistic ‘red lines’ which undermined the UK’s position from the start, leading eventually to the failure of the negotiations.

We next argue that the bias of overconfidence is relevant, as we show that the UK side overestimated its bargaining power in the Brexit negotiations.

We argue that certain elements of British culture have led the UK side to overestimate its bargaining power in the Brexit negotiations.

In particular, the biased perceptions that the UK’s power and prestige would naturally result in it being a strong negotiator, and that Britain’s role in the world offered many viable alternatives to its relationship with the EU.

Finally, we identify a relationship bias, whereby the negotiator’s habits and preconceptions when negotiating with the other side lead to the adoption of sub-optimal strategies.

Being used to adopting a belligerent and antagonistic attitude towards the EU, the UK government automatically continued this attitude during the Brexit negotiations – even though it was counter-productive.

The UK relied on its usual ability to push its weight around in successive rounds of negotiations on the basis of its status as a large member state.

However, the UK’s new status as a third party, combined with its weaker negotiating position, fundamentally changed those dynamics, and would have required a radically different approach.

Correcting the above biases would help the UK to perform more effectively in the forthcoming stages of the negotiations.

Indeed, despite the current government’s emphasis on ‘getting Brexit done’, it is clear that, even if the current deal eventually goes through, this will only be in Churchill’s words ‘the end of the beginning’, since the actual trade negotiations are yet to start.

A more unbiased, realistic and humble approach would help the UK to perform better in those forthcoming negotiations.

It would also help reduce the atmosphere of dramatic tension, ill-placed urgency and impending danger which has surrounded them so far – which in turn could help smooth the country’s divisions and reduce the climate of uncertainty and chaos, so damaging both economically and for the cohesion of British society.

By Dr Filipa Figueira, teaching fellow at University College London

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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