Written on Sat., Jan 26th 2019
Negotiations can be full of sound and fury for the most part signifying nothing. This week has been one of those weeks where UK politicians and commentators sought to play the “gotcha” game. Remarks by EU spokespersons and Irish politicians on the backstop and what would happen with regard to the Irish border in the event of “no deal” seemed contradictory. “Gotcha – the Irish border issue was a hoax all the time designed to keep the UK trapped in the EU”.
While I can’t remember just how many labour negotiations I have been involved in over the past forty plus years, I can say with certainty that in every one of them someone or other, at some time or other, said something out of place that had to be corrected.
Negotiations are conducted by human beings. They are not run by algorithms. Human beings can make mistakes. But when verbal mistakes are made, or are alleged to have been made, it does not change the underlying balance of forces which is what ultimately determines the outcome of any negotiation.
By the way, algorithms are not infallible either. Garbage in, garbage out. Anyone who has ever spent any time on Twitter knows just how much garbage there is going in.
The old adage sums it up perfectly: “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me”. The party that has the most sticks and stones is always going to win the fight, no matter what the other side shouts at them.
Name calling just doesn’t cut it. That’s the way of the world. Sometimes, even American presidents come to realise that, and to somewhat adapt the words of Pink Floyd, figure out that there won’t be another brick in the wall.
Unfortunately, in UK politics, quite often it is name calling that wins the prizes. English politicians, especially those who come through the “public school” system and Oxford/Cambridge debating societies are taught to value oratorical tricks and verbal jousting over the hard grind of detailed research and the tough choices involved in policy formation. Think Boris Johnson, the poster boy of this system. Never did a day’s policy work in his life.
Note: For non-UK readers “public-schools” are private, fee-paying schools, central to elite formation. Go figure the use of the words “public schools” to hide the reality of what they really are.
It is no accident that, in normal times, the highpoint of the parliamentary week in Westminster is PMQ, Prime Minister’s questions, in which the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition square off. It is all about jokes and one-liners, one-upmanship and put-downs. It used to be about grabbing the next day’s headlines. Now it is about hits on social media and soundbites for YouTube. “Gotcha” is the name of the game.
I had written the above couple of paragraphs when I came across this piece by James Delingpole, an alt-right journalist and Brexiteer. It is worth reading in full.
Delingpole did a “car crash” interview last Thursday night, on the BBC1’s late night This Week political review programme, in which he sought to defend the UK “crashing out” of the EU on WTO terms. His interviewer was Andrew Neil who himself is generally perceived as a Thatcherite and is chairman of the right-of-centre Spectator magazine.
Delingpole writes of the interview:
It was so unpleasant I never want to experience it again. But of course I will. Car crash moments are an inevitable consequence of appearing in the public eye — especially if like me you’re one of those chancers who prefers to leave everything to the last minute in the hope you can wing it using a mixture of charm, impish humour, and nuggets of vaguely relevant info snatched on the hoof from the recesses of your memory.
More often than not this technique works. It’s one of the reasons Oxbridge graduates tend to do well in this shallow culture of ours: their education essentially entails spending three or four years being trained in the art of bullshit.
But when you’re up against a relentless inquisitor like the BBC’s Andrew Neil it’s no use at all. He’s not there to discover how amusing you are or how eloquently you can fill the dead air. He just wants a straight answer to the question.
In a way Delingpole’s three paragraphs could just as easily sum up Brexit: a project pushed by “chancers” who are “trained in the art of bullshit” and “who prefer to leave everything to the last minute in the hope you can wing it”. That is, until they come up against an EU negotiator like Michael Barnier who consistently points out that the EU is a rules-based organisation and who wants hard answers to hard questions. The EU is no country for bullshit artists.
So, how do you deal with verbal wordstorms, like the ones we saw this week, from “chancers” who are “trained in the art of bullshit” in real-world negotiations that will impact greatly on the lives of ordinary people?
In the words of William Ury, one of the authors of Getting to Yes you “go to the balcony”. In Getting Past No Ury writes:
When you find yourself facing a difficult negotiation, you need to step back, collect your wits and see the situation objectively. Imagine you are negotiating on a stage and then image yourself climbing onto a balcony overlooking the stage.
The “balcony” is a metaphor for a mental attitude of detachment. From the balcony you can calmly evaluate the conflict almost as if you were a third party.
So, lets go to the balcony. Let’s ask: “What are the basic facts of Brexit and how do these facts bear on the outcome of the process?”
As we have repeatedly noted in this BEERG Brexit Blog, the fundamental fact is that the UK has decided to leave the EU. You may argue that the 2016 referendum was illegal, flawed, that people were sold a bill of goods. But still a majority, albeit a narrow majority, voted to leave. Subsequently, the House of Commons endorses the referendum result by voting overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50 and serve two years’ notice on the EU that it was leaving.
In response, the EU set out a process of negotiations which involved, first, the conclusion of a Withdrawal Agreement, inclusive of a “framework” for future relations between the EU and the UK. Only after the UK has left the EU would the substance of the future relationship be negotiated in detail.
The EU also spelt out its priorities for the Withdrawal Agreement. These were: settlement by the UK of its financial obligations to the EU; guarantees on citizens rights, and; measures to ensure that there would be no return of a “hard border/border infrastructure” on the island of Ireland.
From you seat in the balcony recall the “voices off” saying that the UK held all the cards, that the deal with the EU would be done in an afternoon over a cup of tea, that the UK could have its cake and eat it. Yes, you are right.
That was Delingpole and the other “chancers… trained in the art of bullshit” speaking.
Looking down on the stage, remember the panic that gripped British faces when the realisation dawned that there were no circumstances in which the UK would be ready to leave the EU by March 29, 2019. Remember the end of Act 1 with the UK desperately asking if it could have a transition arrangement, sorry, an “implementation period”, and agreeing to the EU’s Irish backstop proposals so discussions could move on and it could secure its transition deal.
Then the curtain rises on Act 2. The EU lawyer appears on stage with the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement that had been agreed at the end of Act 1. His text says that whatever about the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland will stay aligned to the EU customs unions and single market in so far as that is necessary to protect the Good Friday Agreement.
As Boris Johnson, the ultimate UK wordspinner, said subsequently the UK never believed that the words in Article 49 were to be taken seriously. They were only signed off on so that talks could move to the next stage. It was all just a ruse, an Oxbridge debating trick. It was just so much bullshit.
Except, as you can see from your seat on the balcony, the EU does not go in for debating tricks.
As we said earlier, it is a rules-based organisation because it needs rules to allow 28, soon to be 27, member states to work together. It does not have a “make it up as you go” constitution like the UK. It has its treaties which set out how things should be and a court, the Court of Justice of the European Union, to see that the Treaties are applied properly.
As the Economist columnist Charlemagne noted this week:
Continental systems rely on binding codes…The fear of failed rules is more alive on the history-scarred continent than on a pragmatic island that never knew the jackboot.
When it comes to rules and constitutions, the UK approach is best summed up as “Alice in Wonderland”:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“Brexit means Brexit”. A “jobs-first Brexit”. Brexit in Wonderland.
Oh, and from your seat on the balcony, you can see one other thing.
A bit like one of those Italian operas. There are 27 on one side of the stage and just 1 on the other. And the 27 seem to have all the sticks and the stones and don’t seem too bothered by what the guy on the other side keeps shouting at them.
Seeing the way things are, the UK asked if the backstop could be applied to the whole of the UK, not just to Northern Ireland.
OK, says the EU, the whole of the UK can go into the backstop and stay there “unless and until” other ways are found to obviate a hard border in Ireland. At which point, again as in Italian opera, the UK faints on stage as the realisation dawns as to what it has agreed and demands a time limit or an escape mechanism from the loveless backstop.
The EU says “no” and leaves the stage to the UK. There, centre stage, it stands alone, grappling with its indecision.
So, sitting on the balcony you conclude the following.
The UK wants to leave the EU but does not want to take the economic hit that this will entail. But to avoid the hit in the short-term it must accept the backstop.
But it does not want to accept the backstop because that undercuts to large extent the whole reason d’etre for leaving in the first place, to do its own trade deals.
So, the UK asks the EU if it would throw one of its own members, Ireland, under a bus. The UK, a country leaving the EU having spent forty years cursing every day of its membership, wants the EU to drop the backstop or to put a time limit on the backstop so it can leave on its own terms. After all, leaving or not, it is a big and important country and Ireland is just a little country that should “know its place”.
The curtain falls on Act 2.
You don’t need to be a Puccini to write Act 3.