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What can the negotiator learn from the Brexit experience?

Mexico City, May, 21, 2019
Andrew L. Davis

The Brexit negotiations have seemed like a confusing, complicated and frustrating process for all involved. Perhaps especially so for those who will be most affected by decisions and agreements. Pundits are now telling weary observers that this is only the beginning – that the real business of hard negotiations is about to start as the United Kingdom starts to fine-tune texts for treaties, legislation, norms, and other such delights.

Those of us who are interested in the workings of negotiation are eager to delve into this case study and make some sense of the muddle and understand why this process has not been more efficient. It is time to start.

At this point, all the news stories point to panic, anger, and mayhem. To simplify things, there have been two negotiating parties: the negotiation team assigned by European Council, led by Michel Barnier, and the Her Majesty’s Government, officially led by the Brexit Secretary (there have been various). Other stakeholders on either side (very influential people, probably even more so than the actual negotiators at crucial times), have been Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission, Donald Tusk President of the Council of the European Union, Theresa May, UK Prime Minister, Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, and Emmanuel Macron, the French President. Indeed Theresa May, Jean-Claude Junker, and Donald Tusk face the press the most, and Theresa May seems to do most of the high-profile communications with the European Union and Parliament at home in London.

The goal of the negotiation was never really understood from the beginning. A common recommendation in negotiations workshops is to clearly establish mutually agreed-upon guidelines as to the objectives and desired outcomes. As it turned out, the European Union gave a clear impression that this was not to be a negotiation at all; it was to be a transactional process of a country making an application; rather like filing for a divorce or closing a bank account. The UK perspective declared they wanted to negotiate more as a means of gaining what they could for their own divided electorate rather than looking for satisfying both parties. Furthermore, they went about it in a rather hasty, competitive fashion with little thought-out strategy at all.

The negotiation has been remarkably inflexible. In undergraduate lectures, professors preach about the importance of integrative solutions (win-win/flexible approach/maximizing value/multi-faceted agreements) over distributive outcomes (zero-sum/sharing of the fixed pie/linear approach/inflexible agreements); this particular experience seems to have ignored the message. Perhaps this has in part been due to a lack of unity on the part of the UK negotiating party (different political parties and interest groups being unable to agree on a unifying strategy), however there has been an aversion to seeing this situation as a window of looking for opportunities rather than a way of cutting losses. It is more understandable that the EU would take the zero-sum approach, as they have less to lose from this; the UK should have taken the initiative and looked for a solution that would have created economies and opportunities for both parties. Creativity is the name of the game here.

In terms of opening the negotiation, the European Union was quick to lay down clear inflexible guidelines as to how the negotiation was to be conducted. In May 2017, the European Council of Ministers gave authority for the EU negotiating team to negotiate with the UK in accordance with guidelines and directives. This was to follow a two phased approach, firstly to guarantee the security of EU citizens in the UK, and secondly to set out remaining obligations and commitments of the UK to the EU. Only then could matters such as future trade agreements between the areas be discussed. This initiative was a clever move, seeing as in theory, nobody is an absolute authority in terms of the negotiation process itself; the EU in effect forced the UK into following an inflexible pattern of negotiation which would not give them maneuverability. David Davis, the Minister for Brexit at the time, kicked and squealed, claiming that the UK wanted to negotiate things by following a flexible sequence…but it was too late…the officially written word published through the press carried more weight than vocal reactionary complaints. In the end, the UK has abided by this process almost to the word; only the economic integration “deal” is yet to be agreed upon.

Communication between negotiation team members has been the subject of much contrast. On the part of the European Union, conflicts between team members have not been apparent, as the negotiation team itself has been given a task-force status. Although all of the dirty washing is being done behind closed doors, conflicts are seen to be between ministers on the Council or between Commissioners (outside the team itself). The team seems to have been given the necessary autonomy to negotiate within certain guidelines. On the other hand, the UK negotiating team has been very public about its disunity. The UK team members are more influenced by the head of state and ministers of the crown, rather than being an independent unit representing the sole cause of Brexit, causing much conflict of interest (we must remember that the Prime Minister herself was a promoter of the “Stay” campaign in 2016).

These are merely some initial thoughts, however there will be many more, ancillary negotiations to come if the UK does eventually break away. The lack of planning, the poor communication, and general confusion of the past two years has laid down a poor precedent, however one can only hope to learn from the experience.


Andrew Lee Davis Blake

Andrew Lee Davis Blake at Expertise en investigación de mercados
Profesor de negocios internacionales con historial en proyectos de investigación privados. Especializado en áreas de negociación internacional, comunicación intercultural y estrategias de internacionalización empresarial. Participa como consultor para PYMES, organiza actividades de promoción internacional.
Andrew Lee Davis Blake

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