The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

21 Oct 2019

Relationship with the EU

Brexit talks

Brexit is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, as parliamentary assent for Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement hangs in the balance.

The agreement, as it stands, is simply too contentious to appeal to everyone.

Leavers think a better deal could have been negotiated. Remainers oppose the reasonably ‘hard’ Brexit presaged therein.

And the three-time defeat of the agreement’s previous incarnation under Theresa May looms over the current deal.

How, then, did we arrive at this situation – in which an agreement held to be poorly negotiated was so roundly trounced in parliament by both sides of the divide?

The sheer magnitude of the Brexit task, the contradictions within the Leave campaign’s demands, the polarised public opinion, and the lack of clarity in the referendum mandate itself all contributed to a difficult task for Theresa May, to be sure.

But Britain also didn’t help itself when it came to the choice of bargaining strategy, which attempted to drive a harder bargain than the UK could afford, and which was ill-suited to the political context within which the talks took place.

The result, which the UK must now live with, was a sub-optimal agreement and protracted problems with ratifying the deal.

The British strategy

What were the main identifiable elements of the UK’s negotiating strategy?

First, the British deliberately set out to ask for more than they would obtain, believing the failure of the renegotiation to lie in its conservative nature.

May and her team wanted to keep trade and economic relations as frictionless as possible whilst extricating the UK from the ‘political’ aspects of integration, hence the reliance on the ‘red lines’ (no European Court of Justice jurisdiction, no significant budgetary payments, no freedom of movement).

Second, the strategy aimed at appealing to the interests of the member states.

The EU27, the UK surmised, would be keen to avoid an outcome that might damage their exports to the UK (French champagne and German automobiles, for instance) and so would help the UK obtain an agreement which satisfied British concerns while keeping economic ties intact.

Third, it relied on an explicit threat.

If the UK did not get what it was asking for, then it would impose costs on Europe.

These varies from threats to exit the talks and default to a no deal Brexit (since this was, in May’s words, “better than a bad deal”), to the threat of competitive deregulation which appeared in the Lancaster House speech.

Fourth, the British approach was focused on the member states, rather than the EU institutions.

It was assumed that the talks – as with previous treaty negotiations – would come down to a game of bargaining between the member states, allowing Britain to divide and rule.

The UK’s focus was on bilateral discussions with capitals, the side-payments which could be offered, and – crucially – courting the French and the Germans, viewed as the key to an agreement.

Flawed assumptions

The British strategy did not work out as planned, however.

The high set of initial demands was – unsurprisingly – incompatible with what the EU was prepared to give, not least since it ran roughshod over the principles underpinning the single market, and thus left little flexibility.

Any climb-down on the UK side would prove difficult once May had staked her reputation on taking the fight to Brussels, leaving both sides with incompatible demands.

Appealing to the interests of the member states proved challenging.

The EU27 were not amenable to bilateral conversations and seemed more concerned at maintaining EU unity than in safeguarding specific export sectors.

Most important, the EU’s collective interests were political and existential – the desire to keep the Union together.

Hard bargaining was unsuccessful because the threat of a no deal Brexit was not thought to be credible, not least since the UK had few alternatives to a deal, and since the negative effects of a no deal Brexit would be so heavily concentrated on the UK.

All the threats achieved was to undermine trust and annoy the EU.

And the attempt to divide and rule failed spectacularly in the face of considerably unity on behalf of the member states, the consequence of a number of factors, including the aforementioned existential interest in the European project, the reality of dealing with a soon-to-be non-member, and efforts of Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier to keep the capitals in the loop.

A hard bargain?

There are a number of reasons the British opted to negotiate in the way they did.

For one thing, there was an apparent logic to some of the techniques: many of the assumptions were straight out of ‘Negotiating Theory 101’, and had worked in the past, albeit under different circumstances.

Moreover, May was seeking to learn lessons from her predecessor, David Cameron, who she regarded as having been overly cautious.

Then there was the British experience of having deployed these strategies in previous rounds of negotiations, in which the UK’s power position and status as a member of the Union had indeed won it a number of favourable outcomes, not least the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher.

And hard bargaining, of course, resonated well at home, since many Brits – and especially many Conservatives – remembered fondly Thatcher’s bullish efforts and wished to see the fight being taken to the EU once again.

In hindsight, numerous factors predisposed the UK to adopt a hard bargaining strategy.

These assumptions failed not because the strategies were inherently flawed, but because they ill-fitted the reality of the Brexit talks.

Negotiations on British withdrawal were never going to fit the standard model of treaty negotiations: interests, alignments, and power positions had all shifted by this point.

Ultimately, the UK overestimated its importance to the EU, and consequently overplayed its hand.

By Benjamin Martill, lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh.


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