Brexit talks remind us that there are always two faces to negotiation. What you say in public and what you say in private.
In western democracies, there is an assumed right to know what is going on in negotiations involving governments, unless there are very good reasons why not. Journalists shout questions, ask repeatedly and people scream on Twitter about conspiracies and hidden agendas.
You Cannot Negotiate in Public
Any intelligent person knows that you cannot negotiate in public. Negotiation requires compromise and today’s expected outcome will be tomorrow’s cat litter. Commercial organisations almost always reserve the right not to discuss deals until they are signed. Stock market rules support them: if a deal will affect the share price it is essential that all investors and possible investors know at the same time, to prevent unfair or insider trading.
But politicians have an impossible situation to manage. They must negotiate in private but update, at every stage, in public. Very few negotiations have had as much public scrutiny as the Brexit deal.
There is an added wrinkle to this negotiation in particular – public opinion almost certainly influences the negotiation. That means it is in the interests of both sides to influence public opinion: and opinion is, of course, being deliberately influenced by the, now daily, updates on the negotiations.
There is a procession of headline-grabbing quotable phrases from both sides. This clip includes several carefully crafted phrases from Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
To pull out just one: ‘After 45 years of membership (the EU) are not willing…to offer this country the same terms as Canada.’
Some more of the phrases used by the UK government spokespeople in the last few days include:
‘Time is running out’. Boris Johnson specifically to business leaders urging them to prepare for Brexit.
The EU has not shown ‘the respect and flexibility’ expected in international negotiations. Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick.
‘Door is still ajar’. Michael Gove and Robert Jenrick.
From the EU:
The British ‘are much more depending on us than we are on them’. President Emmanuel Macron.
‘We want a deal, but not at any price.’ ‘It must be fair’. This was said by a number of European leaders after talks last week. The BBC did a brilliant edit to illustrate consistent messaging from the EU side. Sorry, we can’t insert it but it was posted at 20:47 pm 15th Oct (click the link and scroll down until you find the video entitled A few words on Brexit). It is worth a watch.
And we also have off-the-record briefings. Also designed to influence public and political opinions. Unofficial comments that I have seen include:
- The FT quoting a senior UK official with knowledge of the talks saying the mood on the British side was ‘very gloomy’.
- The Express claimed that chief negotiator Michel Barnier and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were ‘fed-up’ with France’s Emmanual Macron for digging his heels in on fishing rights.
- And Politico reported a senior German official who knows Merkel well, summed up thinking on Brexit as ‘Better if in, but if not then close’.
Is it All for Show?
I am sure there are plenty more on and off the record quotes. All part of the theatre of international trade negotiation.
But here are some quotes about the negotiation process that I personally give weight to.
“There is now too little separating the two sides for either to afford a no-deal outcome. Of course, Downing Street will inflate their language to put pressure on the EU. But my judgment is that Johnson is too weak politically to have the commotion of no-deal coming on top of the Covid mayhem.” Peter Mandelson, former EU Trade Commissioner. Quoted in the FT behind a paywall.
And here is a snippet from Politico’s Sunday Crunch:
Perhaps worth remembering … former Brexit Secretary David Davis’ words at the end of 2018, when we were nearing the deadline for a draft Brexit divorce deal: “We’re going to have a very scary few months — from now until about November it’s going to be really scary,” he said. “Everybody’s going to be calling each other’s bluff, there’s all sorts of brinkmanship going to go on — that’s normal, that’s the European Union’s daily bread and that’s what we’ve got to be ready for.”
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