Good Practice
Brexit Negotiations – Letting the Other Side “Win”

The UK has now formally triggered the process to leave the EU, to the delight of half the population and the horror of the other half (or maybe that is 48% plays 52%).

Anyway, the serious negotiations can now begin after months of positioning and posturing. That will no doubt raise all sorts of interesting issues around negotiation strategy and practice; we wrote here about the need for Theresa May and her colleagues to create a credible BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) to make the EU side believe the country will walk away rather than signing up to a poor agreement. And many others are going to analyse the progress of the negotiation over coming months and years.

In the Times, last week, Lord Finkelstein – not an experienced negotiator, we suspect, but an experienced political adviser, strategist, journalist and a very impressive “thinker” wrote about the negotiations to come, and made a very good point. He referred to the Harvard Negotiation Project and the classic book “Getting to Yes”, which is where the BATNA concept comes from too.

He explained that a key trait of good negotiators is to put themselves in the shoes of their opposition. “It’s just as important to get inside the head of the people on the other side in a negotiation as it is to know what you want”.

We should also try and reach an agreement that the other party can present to their stakeholders as a “win” – that makes it much easier obviously for them to agree. Clearly, we want to perceive that the result is a “win” for us too.

“… it is obvious that the one thing that we can’t do is aim to look like winners. This is the Brexit paradox. If we insist on being winners we are bound to be losers. But if we are willing to be losers we can be winners. We must be prepared to acknowledge that there will be loss, and work with the EU to identify what that loss might be. A huge amount depends on our willingness to show this maturity”.

So, the UK negotiators need to really understand what the EU wants out of this. That might include a strong discouragement for others to leave the Union, a good trade deal (for both parties), and cooperation in the defence sphere. Finkelstein points out that if we want the EU side to believe that they have a good deal – or at the very least, a deal they can present it to their people as a win – then the UK side needs to refrain from shouting too loudly about what am amazing deal it is for us.

Now you could turn it round and say that the EU should think the same about the UK, a point Finkelstein doesn’t really cover. But in some ways, the sensitivity is probably even greater on the EU side, given the whole future of the EU is at stake, so we take his point. In fact, if you could get the entire 60 million population of the UK co-operating in the negotiation strategy, you would look for a result where we would all moan about the deal, complaining that the EU has got the best deal – while secretly thinking “what a brilliant deal for the UK!”

The problem with Finkelstein’s concept though is that life just doesn’t work like that. So no British politician will want to give the impression to the British public that the EU has got a good deal, even if (ironically) taking that approach would potentially mean the UK could negotiate a better deal! And you just know that whatever deal we get, much of the media is going to complain that the UK has not achieved what it wanted to.

One of the keys to this, and any major negotiation, is to identify those factors that don’t mean too much to you but are valuable to the other party. They can then be negotiated and conceded in return for factors that really matter. How might that work here? What about a huge fight over the right for British wine makers to use the “champagne” designation? That really matters to France – not really so much to the UK.

But even in such cases that don’t really matter to the UK, you could imagine the headlines. “UK backs down over Cheltenham Champers” perhaps. But really, we should let the French think this is a valuable win, so they feel good about the agreement, and allow the French media to ignore the favourable deal for British banks, car makers, etc.

In any win:win type negotiation, particularly one that is part of an ongoing relationship above and beyond a one-off deal, having both parties feel good about the agreement is a desirable and positive outcome. Achieving that in the context of Brexit will not be easy, but it should be something that the UK and EU negotiators should bear in mind over the coming months.

Voices (2)

  1. Digby Barker says:

    Despite what’s been said about no negatiations until after Article 50 has been triggered, the “months of positioning and posturing” have been part of the negotiations. Negotiation is, unavoidably, a continuous process particularly in the international political sphere: the Parties don’t have to be facing each other across a table: it’s indirect as well as direct. Whilst the need to ensure the other side has a ‘way out’ is always important, we need to remember we will effectively be negotiating with 28 other parties: the EU and the 27 other member states – as Spain has just reminded everyone re Gibraltar. The world is so complex that there will no doubt be ‘Gibraltar’- equivalents for each of the other parties which makes me wonder what the eventual overall cost to the UK in political capital will be. To this bill we must also add the opportunity cost of all the effort that is going into Brexit, including on the security front, that associated with re-assigning intelligence assets from e.g. Anti-terrorism duties to support the negotiations…….

  2. Paul Wright says:

    One of the problems of political negotiations is that each side is looking over their shoulders at least as much as at the other party.
    The EU has made clear that negotiations will be public, which is a huge advantage to them as our side will at least as worried about appeasing The Daily Mail (et al) as getting the best deal for the UK. The EU side can very easily wind our side up by aggravating our media to get meaningless concessions. It would be best for the UK if this were all done in secret – which is why it will not be.