Brexit Chest Thumping Versus Skilled Negotiation: Jonathan Powell

At last a piece of Brexit analysis by someone who has done many difficult negotiations in the past and who has learned from them:

Stop the Brexit chest thumping: successful negotiators build trust. The UK must refrain from overplaying its strengths and consult widely to seal a good deal. Whether we think Brexit is an utter disaster or not, we need to hope that, if we do indeed leave the EU, we get “the best possible deal for Britain’s economy”, in the phrase Theresa May keeps repeating.

 Over the past 40 years I have, largely by accident, spent most of my time negotiating: with the IRA; on German unification; with the old Soviet Union and in Colombia, among other countries. Brexit is without doubt the most difficult negotiation I have seen in my lifetime. It is mind-bogglingly complex, structurally — how can you persuade the others that the divorce, the new deal and the transitional measures are negotiated in parallel rather than sequentially? In terms of substance, it makes the Schleswig-Holstein question look like child’s play. And the UK has an extraordinarily weak hand.

It most closely reminds me of negotiating the return of Hong Kong in 1983-4 with Deng Xiaoping’s China, talks for which I was the desk officer. Britain was then, too, at a dramatic disadvantage. The New Territories reverted to China automatically at the end of the 99-year lease and the rest of the colony was not sustainable without them. Margaret Thatcher and Hong Kong’s Executive Council convinced themselves that the Chinese would never kill the golden goose — Hong Kong was an essential outlet for a liberalising Chinese economy. They were wrong. Every Chinese schoolchild had been educated for decades about the iniquity of the Opium wars and the way in which Britain had humiliated imperial China by seizing the colony. Reversing that humiliation was a far higher priority than worrying about the economic benefits of Hong Kong.

Once we had raised the issue of the lease there was no way the negotiation was going to end with Britain handing back both sovereignty and administration. Thanks to the brilliance of Britain’s chief negotiator, Percy Cradock, we were able to turn an appallingly weak hand around and secure at least some guarantees for Hong Kong’s future. These have more or less worked over the intervening years. Let’s hope we have another Percy Cradock somewhere in our system.

Learning from the Hong Kong example, the first step in the Brexit negotiation would be to stop the chest thumping. Stop telling Europe how strong we are and how it is in its interest that we should still have access to its markets. The objective of any negotiation is to build trust between the two sides, not to undermine it. At the moment we are going in the other direction — no new relationship with the EU is going to work smoothly unless we are at least civil to each other.

The second step is to stop overestimating the strength of our position. We are weak strategically and tactically. We are weak strategically because we depend on the EU market far more than it depends on us. Drivelling on about Britons buying BMWs and prosecco, as foreign secretary Boris Johnson has been heard to do, is not going to change this hard reality or the economic facts. We are weak tactically because of the two-year deadline after triggering Article 50. Extending it requires consensus among all 27 remaining EU members, so we are the ones under pressure to conclude the negotiation quickly. FT View Achieving a great repeal will not be copy-and-paste British pragmatism, not Eurosceptic ideology, should be the guide Threatening to jump off a cliff into World Trade Organization measures if we do not get what we want is comparable with someone threatening to shoot themselves unless you do what they want. It cuts no ice; so stop with the threats.

Third, and most importantly, we need to build common interests between business sectors in a potentially departing Britain and business in the remaining 27 states. Unless the voices and views of the whole of the UK are engaged in the process (business, the English regions, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the trade unions and the third sector), the final outcome of the negotiations will be worse for jobs and businesses, citizen, consumer and employment rights, environmental standards and effective regulation. And, therefore, worse for Britain.

It is only by listening to the real effects of Brexit on these sectors that Britain’s interests can be advanced. And it is only by ensuring that engagement is transnational — across all EU member states — involving enterprise, entrepreneurs, importers and exporters, employers and employees that Britain’s negotiators can obtain such a deal. This will require the support of a qualified majority of the European Council, and the consent of the European Parliament. That is why I am establishing an international dialogue to allow business to exchange views and politicians to listen. The Brexit negotiations will be extraordinarily tough and may extend beyond the two-year duration. What is clear is that unless there is real, detailed engagement and dialogue with British and European business and unions, the outcome of these negotiations will be even worse in terms of jobs, exports and enterprise than anyone has imagined.

The writer is chair of Brexit Exchange and former chief of staff to Tony Blair

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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