Steven Spencer
Naked Politics Blogger

What we need is a good negotiator, one who is used to doing deals in business, one who is well versed in winning, one who can lead, play hard ball, make the other side give in, and get what we want; so say the endless armchair critics and talking heads in the Brexit coverage. Some think this is intuitively correct and if only we could find this person, the EU would arrive on bended knee and propose a new marriage in which we can live in the martial home, have exclusive ownership of the dog and go off with anyone else we fancy.

But, is it right? Let’s examine the evidence. The first and most obvious point is we have two sides who each want a deal, but each have conflicting concerns, in addition to overlapping interests, so it is likely that some form of negotiation is needed. We can therefore imagine a negotiator, or more realistically, an army of negotiators may be needed by each side to sort out the myriad of agreements needed to make Brexit a reality.Donald-Trump-Brexit

A person or people with business experience though? Even a cursory knowledge of the differences between a state and a business would suggest not. When two privately owned businesses negotiate there are three implicit conditions that exist:

  1. there is a higher authority to arbitrate if it goes wrong – the courts,
  2. each business can fail, meaning the private owners, be they individuals or shareholders, can lose their investment,
  3. the final deal will be approved if it provides a benefit to the owners on both sides, or if one side is stronger than the other and forces their will on the other.

In the Brexit negotiations, none of these conditions exist. There is no higher authority, other than international law and EU institutions, which are not hard and fast, nor as powerful as a court arbitrating within a country. The 28 countries involved cannot fail, as was proven by the lengths resorted to when Greece was close to financial collapse. Finally, there is no necessity within the mechanism for either or both sides to benefit from Brexit, in fact it is likely that in the short term at least, neither will.May-Merkel-Macron-Brexit

Given the lack of these, adopting a combative, business informed negotiating strategy is in fact likely to fail. If each side pushes as though one can prevail, but with no arbitration and no guarantee of a conclusion, the only fall back is for the process to fail. Whereas in business this would result in ‘business as usual’ being resumed, in the case of Brexit there is no going back (or at least it seems far too difficult to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU); failure means a full break in the relationship, to the detriment of both sides.

This is exactly what we see in the current impasse. For almost two years the UK government has behaved as though it can ‘win’, as though David Davis and his business informed negotiating experience (and his successors) could prevail, assuming that the EU will give in and ultimately that the ‘owners’ (France and Germany) will see sense and let the UK have what it wants, in the interests of avoiding a bad outcome. By following this line, the stronger entity, the EU, has been forced to try to ‘win’, to stick to its positions and make the UK blink first. This has not worked, will not work and cannot bring about a conclusion that is acceptable to voters on both sides.David Davis-Brexit

What next then? A sensible person might decide to adopt a different strategy. The two sides are not businesses, they are a complex democracy one side and 27 complex democracies on the other. Each of these nations has sovereignty, must protect its interests, has a national will and in the case of the EU27, had this process thrust upon them. Starting by identifying common ground and codifying this into agreements as soon as possible might enable progress to be made on the stickier areas. Goodwill tends to prompt reciprocation. We would after all find it odd if a combative approach was adopted in other international institutions, for example NATO. Imagine if the UK Defence Secretary stood up and said, “Germany, Denmark and France, you had better join this year’s exercises, or we will have no deal and collective defence is out of the window”, which is effectively analogous to having ‘no deal’ on the table in the EU negotiations.

Winning is perhaps best saved for the sporting field, in the real world, as almost everybody knows from everyday experience, compromise is needed to stay within a community. If winning is the name of the game in Brexit I fear we will all be losers.

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Last Update: February 06, 2019