This blog was written and posted on Feb 18th, 2018:
Last Monday I came across a Twitter exchange between two prominent Brexit supporters. Not politicians, but well-known members of the commentariat.
One of them accepted what the UK government had signed up to as regards the avoidance of a border in Ireland in Article 59 of last December’s “Article 50, Phase 1” agreement. However, she believed that the UK government had been trapped into doing so and should now actively be looking for a way out. Welch on the deal, in deed if not in word.
The second one denied that what had been agreed had been agreed. The interpretation of Article 49 by Brussels (AKA EU27) and Dublin was simply wrong. London could never have agreed such terms.
Both, in their own way, were saying that Article 49 put the UK government in an impossible position of promising mutually incompatible things to the EU27 (and Dublin), the DUP and the hardline Brexiters in the UK.
Truth may be the first casualty of war, but it can never be a casualty of negotiations, and denying or reneging on the truth was what the two Brexiters were about.
While, as we discussed last week in this BEERG Briefing, a large part of your leverage in negotiations derives from clearly knowing your BATNA, your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, the actuality of negotiations is conducted by real, living, breathing people and they only have one card to play in discussions. Their reputation for trustworthiness and honesty. The other party must be able to believe that you mean what you say and when you say you can deliver, you can deliver.
Too often negotiations are framed as what you might call the “art of the steal”, getting one over on the other side, a thing of tricks and stratagems. Your objective: to trump the other guy, winner take all, no prisoners. Negotiators who deliver long-term value for their own side know none of this is true. They know that there is a tomorrow as well as a today and that if the other side leave feeing cheated, or, thereafter, betrayed, the deal will fall apart and there will be consequences, sometime revenge.
Rather than the “art of the steal” negotiations that build agreements that last are the “art of the honest handshake”, a handshake that says we have crafted an agreement that is fair to us both, that we will both respect, and that will stand over time.
But you can only ever get to this point if you are clear as to your objectives and know exactly what you will do if the agreement you want is not available. This we discussed in last week’s briefing. Nothing we have seen this week suggests that the UK government has moved on for the position we described then. On the contrary. The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, gave a speech which can only be described as “Brexit: My Vision of La La Land”.
But assuming you do know your objectives and have a reasonable idea of your BATNA, then there are four other issues to which you need to pay attention if the negotiation is to be successfully.
We call them the 4Ts. Timescale; Table; Team and Truth.
And the greatest of these is truth, as we discussed above.
Timescale: You are about to begin a negotiation. One of the first questions you should ask is whether or not there is a timescale, a deadline. If there is a timescale or deadline to whose advantage does it work? If it does not work to your advantage can it be changed? Is it movable? What happens if the deadline is missed? Where does that leave you?
No experienced negotiator creates a deadline that puts themselves under pressure. Certainly, create one if it pressurises the other side. But why would you create one that puts you under pressure, that says to the other party, “here’s a big stick, beat me with it”.
You plan to buy a new house. You sell your existing house without having an option on a new one. In fact, you haven’t even decided where you want to live in the future. You have just got fed up with your old house and neighbourhood and you have been nagged by some of the family to sell up and move on. Having sold, you have to move out. But you haven’t decided where you want to go. The family are arguing over it. Agreement among your warring tribe is proving impossible. Deadline day is looming ever closer.
It is not that your options are running out. You never had any in the first place. You just decided to sell. Where you were living was simply not good enough anymore and you had heard that there were great new developments being built elsewhere in town.
Where you were living was the past. These exciting new developments were the future. But they weren’t built yet. And you’d have to negotiate with the developers to get a deal. You have no idea how long any of this might take. But you were willing to take that leap of faith into the unknown. One of the developments even had the exciting name of La La Land. Who wouldn’t want to go there? Where do you live? I live in La La Land.
Sound familiar? That’s what the UK did with the Article 50.
It gave the EU two years’ notice that it was leaving, without having decided where it was going to go. The UK put itself under pressure. Why? Just so the government could say to the loudest shouting faction that, “yes, all right, we heard you, we are leaving the EU, we’ll be out in two years. Happy now?”. Only after the Article 50 notice had been given did the reality of looming homelessness dawn. Bit late.
Table: For many people the word negotiations calls up images of two teams sitting across a table from one another. The infamous picture of David Davis, paperless, sitting across the table from Michael Barnier, files stacked in front to him, sums it up.
But this image is misleading. Experienced negotiators will tell you that 90% of the work is done before you even get to sit at the table.
You plan to have some friends around for dinner. You don’t give it much thought. Give them a quick call during to the day to tell them to be there at 19:30. You’ll see what you have in the house when you get home from work and throw a few things together. You “know” you have plenty of drink in. What could go wrong?
Or, you sit down and plan it all out in advance. First, you contact your friends to see when they are available. You tell them what you are planning, let’s say, a Tex-Mex evening. No surprises. You are structuring expectations. Once you know who is coming you look at a seating plan. The way you lay out the room, the way you seat people generates its own dynamics. Maria and Pascale don’t really get on. Best not to put them beside one another. Don’t want their bickering taking centre stage.
Design the meal. Anyone allergic to anything? Best to know in advance. Straightforward menu or a menu with choices? Order the food. Order the drinks. Plan how you want to run the evening from the time people arrive until they depart. Give them some advice on where to park, if they are driving. (“Been driving around for the past half-hour…”).
Where to put their coats? Music or not? It is the little things that often count.
Which works best? Come home from work and wing it? Or meticulous planning? What you might call the Davis v the Barnier templates.
The “table” is preparation, planning, attention to detail, every last detail. Nothing left to chance. Homework done and double checked. Making sure that those involved have a good idea in advance of what to expect.
Team: If you don’t recruit the right team and send them out to play in the right formation it is unlikely that you are going to win the game. Even the right team set up wrongly will lose.
Even before the UK formally told the EU that it planned to leave the EU had put its team together and started preparing. As in football (both the European and US types) the EU team got together pre-season and started to work on strategy, tactics and fitness.
Gameplans were put together. Gamebooks written. The EU team choose as its leaders a highly experienced former French government minister, who has also served as a European Commissioner. The European Parliament nominated a former prime minister of Belgium as their point man. Both sharp, well-versed in sophisticated, modern European play.
After the UK voted to leave the EU, their team manager resigned and a new one was appointed. Actually, she probably wasn’t the first choice of the board but all the other available candidates were either damaged goods or damaged themselves in the process.
Come the day of the appointment she was the only one left standing.
She seems to have been unwise in her choice of backroom staff. It subsequently emerged, after they were sacked, that they had pushed her into opting for a very aggressive, attacking style of play, to make promises to their supporters they couldn’t deliver on, and to publicly rubbish the other teams.
When she went into the transfer market she bought badly. Her three “strikers”, Johnson, Fox and Davis, had either never played in the major league before, Johnson; had recently played but had been suspended by the club for unacceptable behaviour on a foreign trip, Fox; or had been brought out of retirement, Davis, who last played over twenty years ago when you could pass back to the goalkeeper and the pitches were mud by mid-winter. There were better players available but she wanted to keep faith with the “ultras” among the team supporters and Johnson, Fox and Davis were their favourites.
She could have asked for a delay to the start of the season but she didn’t, again to satisfy the ultras who believed that the season would be a walkover and couldn’t wait to get started. Then, before the first game had even taken place she called a break and went to her supporters to ask for their backing. Didn’t quite work out the way she planned.
When the game did begin it soon became clear that her strikers were not only out of their league, but couldn’t play with one another, wouldn’t pass the ball, and seemed more interested in tackling some of their own teammates than the opposing players.
By the end of the first half they were 3-0 down.
So, apart from having unrealisable objectives, no BATNA, getting the timescale, table and team wrong, being somewhat loose with the truth, the UK has not put a foot wrong and is heading for a glorious defeat.
One last point. In any negotiation it is never a good idea to lecture or insult the other party. Which is what Mrs. May did in Munich on Saturday when she told a defence conference that the EU should not let “rigid institutional restrictions” and “deep-seated ideology” get in the way of a security deal with the UK after Brexit. What she actually meant was that the EU should not let its “deep-seated ideology” (for which read the legally based policies and procedures necessary in a group of 27-member states) get in the way of the UK’s “deep-seated ideology”.
Oh, sorry. The UK does not have an ideology. It just has common sense. It is European who have ideology.
Whenever you hear the UK talk about “common sense” you should remember the wise words of Keynes:
“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”
About sums it up.