Why May’s “Bloody Difficult” approach to Brexit Negotiations is so wrong

This was originally posted on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/GuitarMoog/status/875807980041752577

A re-written version is available here: UK in a Changing Europe

and here: The New Statesman

A rambling, disorganised thread on negotiations with the EU and why May’s “bloody difficult woman” approach is so wrong.  This is from direct experience as 1st/2nd Sec Development in UKREP negotiating for the UK in EU Council working groups.  And from working in the Commission’s External Relations DG (Now the External Action Service).

Being ‘tough’ can work, but only if it is used properly and deployed sparingly at strategic points in negotiations.  Being ‘difficult’ never works. It breaks trust, & creates resentment, and a justifiable unwillingness to compromise in your opposite numbers.  Negotiation is not, contrary to popular belief, about barging in, thumping the table and demanding you get everything you want.  It’s also not about undermining your opposite numbers, or insulting their intelligence by making outlandish and untrue claims.

The first key to a successful negotiation is trust. Both sides must know that the other is negotiating in good faith, and want a reasonable outcome.  Both sides know that walking away is an option in extremis, but openly threatening this undermines the trust that a solution is being sought. Compromises and concessions can only be given on the basis of this trust and good faith.

The Second key is understanding the process and your opposite numbers’ properly. The process, in this case, is fixed by one side.  That is the process that UK signed up to when they signed the treaties. Fighting it is counter-productive. Understand the process and use it.

Understanding your opposite numbers (oppos) is essential. They also have constraints and expectations placed on them by their stakeholders.  Understanding this and 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 line is fundamentally incompatible with that of your Oppos, you have already lost.

But their opposition may, for example, be about the way in which something is done, not the thing itself. Is it the wording, but not the meaning that is a problem? Suggest alternative wording. be constructive.  If it is the mechanism, be flexible on the outcome. Is it for optics? Could something else replace it?

Only be ‘tough’ or angry when you judge it will actually bring about the outcome you want. Shows of strength for their own sake don’t work.

This leads to a third key point. Flexibility must be built into your position from the start. You cannot get everything.  Everything cannot be a red line that you’ll die in a ditch for, or you may as well go home before you start.  Don’t deploy red lines casually or widely. Oppos respect genuine red lines – they have them too – but claiming everything is a red line will make them disregard the real ones.

Your position should be clear and prioritised. Everything that is not a red line should have a fall-back position built in.  This means you have to manage expectations at home. Everyone wants their priority to be your No1, but they can’t all be.  You should also have a rather complex web of what can be traded-off for each of the biggest priorities.

The pre-negotations have already been a disaster, with UK govt first trying to divide the EU27, and then, when that didn’t work out, deliberately breeding resentment and mistrust.  One of the complaints about the EU as a negotiator with 3rd countries is that it is too inflexible. Everything has to be agreed at council, and negotiating mandates cannot be changed on the fly.  The UK Government knows this though, so pretending the EU27 side was posturing over sequencing, citizens’ rights etc. was absurd and made UK look like it was not a serious negotiator.

And then the ill-fated No Deal Better than Bad Deal rhetoric, which has had a disastrous effect.  EU27 does not want UK to walk away – it will cost them – but they will deal with it if needs be. The EU itself is more important to it.  And it would cost UK an order of magnitude more, & both sides know this.

So this line was effectively bringing a knife to a gun fight. It served only to reduce trust and again make UK look like it was not a serious, constructive negotiator looking for a mutually beneficial outcome.

Throughout, the UK govt. has acted as if EU27 do not have access to UK news, playing solely to domestic opinion.  The EU27 know that UK has backed itself into a corner on the exit bill, ECJ, Freedom of Movement etc.  They know that this govt will find it impossible to go back with a big bill (>£30bn?) or accept FoM or ECJ jurisdiction over anything.

Ruling this out publicly, instead of explaining and managing expectations at home, again weakens UK.  It gives credence, again, to the view that UK is planning to walk out, but, even worse.  It shows UK govt to be either willing to lie to their people or ignorant of the realities.

In conclusion, whatever the preparation that the civil service has been doing behind the scenes, UK has approached this appallingly.  Its naive attempts to show strength have served to undermine their case and strengthen EU27’s resolve.

Its open, unapologetic lying to the UK public about what they will get has reduced EU27’s respect for them.

Its posturing and threats have sown mistrust and undermined them as a serious negotiator looking for a real outcome.

And they have backed themselves into corners with unforced errors on ECJ, Single Market, the exit bill and FoM.

Finally, it really helps to be right in negotiations. To have the arguments, facts and moral high ground on your side.  UK showed again and again, but especially in its treatment of EU27 citizens, that it has none of these.  The threat to bargain over security cooperation, over terrorism and the life & death of citizens, was a moment of appalling moral weakness.

So, in my view, the chances of this govt getting any deal, let alone a good one, in only 21 months, are minimal.  But I think they know this. The level of complexity is too much, the preparations too poor, the messaging self-defeating.

So I think the plan remains 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 they just couldn’t help themselves, could they?


There are only 4 options for Brexit, and only one of them actually works

This was originally a Twitter thread here: https://twitter.com/GuitarMoog/status/874680793460813825

There are 4 options available for Brexit. Anyone who tells you there are others is, I’m afraid, mistaken or lying. They are:

A. Walk out with no deal, as I’ve no doubt Davis et al are more than willing to, plunging UK off a cliff;

B. Agree divorce agreement and then attempt bespoke CETA-style FTA or Ukraine-Style association agreement (Note that EU27 really are not joking about the sequencing BTW. Divorce settlement first, then trade deal. Latter conditional on former);

C. Accept EFTA/EEA largely as is, at least on the main principles. Of course details will be negotiated, but rules, incl FoM will stand;

D. Attempt to withdraw Art50. Will probably still just about get away with it, with agreement to drop a few current UK perks in next MFF.

A is obviously absurdly catastrophic. B will, as Ivan Rogers rightly noted, take at least 5-7 yrs of uncertainty with no guaranteed outcome or end.  C is reasonable, and would reduce harm compared to A & B, but requires UK accepting ‘Laws by Fax’ with little or no say in them.

Which, of course, leaves us with D…

I should also add a note on ‘reforming’ SM or Freedom of movement, which seems to be Labour policy.  Why would the EU27 possibly be interested in changing a cornerstone of the Treaties, a fundamental principle, just because it’s UK’s preference? Particularly when it is in the UK’s power simply to ask to remain in the SM and accept the conditions of it like Norway and others do? Opening this would obviously lead to calls from EFTA/EEA members for the same deal for them. Switzerland tried this, and had to concede.

UK will not dictate terms, the EU27 will. The EU27’s concession is that, despite the damage already caused by UK, SM is still on the table.

Please vote. Please vote tactically

A few people have asked my advice on how to vote tomorrow. Here’s my EUR 0.02:

This is the most important election you will ever vote in. Please vote.

A Conservative government with an enlarged majority will be a disaster for the UK. There is a very good chance that May is planning to walk out of Brexit negotiations, leaving the UK in a catastrophic no-deal situation. I cannot emphasise enough how bad this would be for every person in the UK. Plans were leaked yesterday of massively increased cuts to the NHS, including reducing staff and abandoning many waiting-list targets. Human rights legislation which protects all of us from harm by the government will be abandoned under the guise of anti-terror measures. This from a Home secretary who cut police numbers and accused the police of ‘crying wolf’ over the terror threat.

The best outcome by far is a hung parliament, with Labour being propped up by the SNP/LibDems/Greens in exchange for a referendum on the Brexit deal including an option to remain.

So, how to vote:

1. Ignore any party affiliation you might have. It hurts, but this is too important.

2. Vote for the pro-EU candidate in your constituency that the best chance of winning. In Scotland this will almost certainly be the SNP candidate. Elsewhere it is likely to be LibDems or Plaid Cymru, and in a few places, Green.

3. Check the Wikipedia page for your constituency. If the pro-EU candidate’s party came a very distant third (e.g., 7-8,000 votes behind second place) or worse in the last two elections, they are likely to have little chance. In this case, vote for the candidate that has the best chance of beating the Conservative candidate. In practice, this probably means voting Labour in a marginal Labour/Cons seat.

4. Do not waste your vote by voting for your preferred party where it has no chance at all of winning. We can go back to normal politics later, but the focus must be on tactical voting this time.

5. Watch out for UKIP voters. Many will be moving their support to the Tories, so seats with a couple of thousand majority over the conservatives but where UKIP got a few thousand last time may be under serious threat.

So, in summary, vote for the Pro-EU candidate with the best chance of winning, and, if they have no chance of winning, vote for the candidate with the best chance of beating the Conservatives.