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?

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

  1. This is a superb blog.

    I’m going to share it far and wide! As a Union man who has to help my new reps in the art of negotiation from time to time i’m probably going to share this under those circumstances too! Bravo!


  2. Outstanding and really helpful for us negotiation amateurs.. It seems like common sense reading it, which makes me wonder why the government are driving us headlong towards a catastrophe.


  3. The British Government’s approach does seem to make more sense if its goal is actually to fail to do any deal anyway – but to be able to frame it as the other side’s fault. An exercise not in negotiating but merely one in posturing.


  4. The plan was to win the Election, walk out of the talks and scream that it is the beastly Europeans fault for being unreasonable, and then watch economic catastrophe unfold, but have 5 years to spin it as anyone’s fault but the lying Brexiteers. The plan was never ever to confess the mountain of lies that Gove, Johnson, TRees Mogg, Redwood etc told.
    The Election result has rather changed things. Plan B anyone? I’d love to think there is a Plan H – H for Honesty – but telling the truth about Brexit will destroy the Tory party. That may happen anyway


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  7. As a former colleague and Europe Parly and Comms team member, I am so happy to see your common sense, insightful tweets and blog. We need to stop talking in the Remainer bubble somehow and use simple explanations to get people onboard who are prepared to admit to themselves at least that they did not really know what they had voted for.


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