Making social science accessible

14 Mar 2019

Politics and Society

UK-EU Relations

The Brexit campaign win delivered a mandate without a Commons majority, a clear manifesto or a political party to support its execution. So it has fallen to MPs to balance their own interests with those of party, local party, constituency and referendum result. Those interests – principally between May, Brexit politicians, DUP, Remainer politicians, Leave and Remain voters – may finally be converging.

What can strategic negotiation tell us about how people balance competing interests? In the technical language of negotiations, we speak of individuals’ interests in terms of survival, progression and legacy. In politics these are especially intertwined.

Theresa May’s fundamental interest is surviving to progress an agreement which secures her legacy. All is to play for: she could be the gritty leader navigating uncharted waters to land an impossible deal, or culpable for three years of fruitless negotiations and a no deal exit. She is essentially using fear of a no deal for Remainers, and a second referendum for Brexiteers, to push them into accepting her deal.

For many pro-Brexit politicians their fundamental interest was the legacy of authoring this historic shift. A possible prime ministerial vacancy has changed the calculus though. A soft Brexit can be blamed on May, a no deal Brexit can’t.

However bullish they may appear, few would privately bet everything on a no deal Brexit improving our economy: certainly not in the near term. An economic shock will harm their political future both within their party and the electorate. So a long customs union transition works for most now.

The backstop has proved convenient here. At stake is peace, and preservation of the Union; at risk on paper up to 99 further years under EU political jurisdiction. This may be incendiary to die-hard Brexiteer MPs, but it also diverts minds from an agreement which broadly sets out Britain’s future EU relationship.

Commercial negotiation strategies are at play here. When a lawyer gives his first contract red lines, implication is that anything unmarked is acceptable. The backstop allows Brexiteers to avoid giving red lines, and room to object to any of it later.

The imminent backstop compromise also allows them to claim both victory, and compromise, in the country’s interests. A handy dual narrative to have in leadership and general elections.

There’s another reason to draw attention from the Withdrawal Agreement: it’s a hard Brexit, in that it has the UK leaving the single market and customs union. It is in Brexiteers’ interests to focus on the backstop thereby hiding the fact, from Parliament and public alikethat they have got the hard Brexit they sought.

That is not to pretend the backstop isn’t hugely complex and sensitive. EU membership offered an Irish border solution without it appearing a political compromise. To the EU’s credit, they are balancing concern for peace with the integrity of goods entering the customs union.

Michel Barnier recently hinted at a ‘smart technology’ solution to make the border almost imperceptible. This, along with physical checks pre-border, might remove the risk of any visible demarcations (though threatening surveillance-style intrusion instead).

An imperceptible border is clearly in the UK’s interest too, both for peace and to set a light UK:EU trading frontier elsewhere. This solution, with an extended transition period to negotiate the future relationship, may give sufficient confidence to enable a short time-bound backstop end date.

It may require an Article 50 extension, and a legally-binding change to the agreement appendix, to get there. The backstop focus also serves the DUP interest, as they will have used their hung Parliament power to avoid a ‘sea border’ separation from mainland Britain.

Leave voters’ fundamental interest is a change in the EU relationship, for many meaning immigration and sovereignty. For those with economic complaints was it the EU failing to deliver prosperity, or its domestic distribution after the financial crash and ‘austerity’ cuts?

Either way the Withdrawal Agreement still offers a Brexit which leaves the single market, customs union and any political relationship. So most would get what they wished for, and it remains to be seen whether any costs would be considered worth it.

In that sense many Brexit and Remain voters may have one mutual interest. The majority of Remain voters favoured EU migration caps, if the New Economics Foundation survey of November 2016 is accurate.

For many Remainers it is just coming at too high a cost. Political parties have not effectively addressed domestic inequality and immigration concerns. The next general election, and any political party realignment, may help rectify this.

Tory and Labour Remainer politicians are also focused on avoiding the legacy of a no deal exit. Some see progress through a second referendum, but others see their survival at risk if one goes ahead (especially Leave constituency MPs). The Labour leadership also has an ultimate red line on a no deal; now that their version of Brexit has been voted down, they are back to appeasing their MPs and voters with suggestions of an election or a second referendum.

In reality, having no effective whip over their MPs now works in their favour. They will know many Remainer Labour MPs, as well as Tory Remainers, may still vote for May’s deal if the backstop is resolved rather than back a second referendum. They also know that an extension of Article 50, to halt a no deal, would be passed before either an election or second referendum.

So, despite the government losing by 149 votes a mutual interest in Parliament may still be forming sufficient to pass May’s deal, possibly with an extension. No deal being taken off the table will only help many MP’s follow their fundamental interests and back it. This despite her lack of legitimacy in Brexiteers’ eyes and delivering a hard Brexit to a largely Remain Parliament. An inconvenient truth for all sides perhaps.

If it does pass, a new Tory leader may soon be negotiating our future relationship. Will a Brexiteer claim their vital role without giving legitimacy to May’s agreement? If they don’t back it, it might suggest everyone is back to square one. That’s in nobody’s interests, not even Leaver conservative die-hards. Short-term fatigue might then push them to a ‘soft Remainer’, with even less authority than a Brexit counterpart to deviate from a Hard Brexit deal.

By Paul Alexander, who runs a strategic negotiation practice.


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