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Published: Dec 07 , 2017
Author: John McMillan

Two’s company; 27’s a crowd. It may be tricky negotiating with a single party, but when there are 27 divergent interests on the other side of the table it becomes even harder. That is just part of the challenge that the UK Government has in their Brexit negotiations.

In most negotiations the negotiator is not negotiating for their own benefit; they almost always represent a coalition of interests. If that coalition is united in its mandate to the negotiator, then she or he may have very little room to manoeuvre. Any concession beyond the mandate will have to go back to the coalition for approval. However, if there is disunity amongst the coalition then the negotiator’s ability to make a deal is fatally flawed.

The UK Government has three major weaknesses in the Brexit negotiations: they have a divided party with the hard-liners demanding no concessions; they require the votes of the DUP to command a majority in Parliament and they are sensitive on the issue of the border with the Republic of Ireland; and finally, the EU holds the upper hand, so it has become not so much a negotiation, more a slow surrender. 

As I write the DUP has withdrawn its support for the proposed compromise; the hard-liners are revolting, and the EU says that the UK hasn’t conceded enough. The UK Government has failed to get its coalition to sign up to the offer they made to the EU over the Irish border issue; and, consequently, the DUP has vetoed the suggested compromise.

Successful proposals need to address the core issues of all negotiating parties involved in approving and implementing the deal. Whatever deal is eventually agreed with the EU must be ratified by the 27 members and their constituent assemblies. As we saw with the CETA treaty between the EU and Canada, the Wallonian Assembly was able to block the agreement and now Poland is threatening to do the same. The UK’s Brexit agreement is likely to prove even more contentious. Whatever the outcome is it needs to be presented as a “win” to the negotiators’ coalitions so that they will approve the agreement.

After settling with the EU the UK then has to turn their attention to replacing the other 759 “essential” bilateral agreements with another 168 separate parties covering everything from aviation, customs, transport, financial services to nuclear goods.  On Brexit day the UK will drop out of all these agreements which regulate our everyday activities so there is a degree of urgency in having replacement agreement negotiated.

According to the Financial Times, there are 49 agreements with Switzerland, 44 with the USA and 38 with Norway; and those are the countries that might be well disposed towards the UK. The World Trade Organisation has 164 members, each of whom has a veto over any agreement that the UK might try to reach. It would be surprising if they did not use the UK’s urgent need for a deal to exert leverage to tilt any new agreement in their favour.

There might be a need for some more skilled negotiators in the UK Government team. Scotwork stands ready to assist.


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About the author:

John McMillan
After graduation I worked as an industrial sales engineer. This job involved both management/union negotiating and negotiating large commercial contracts. Inspired by a study of union negotiating, and using my own personal experience, I created what was to be the UK’s first course teaching the skills of negotiation, as opposed to the theory.

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“When it comes to the qualifications we demand of our president, to start with, we need someone who will take the job seriously.” Michelle Obama. Don’t stop reading - this blog is not about Donald Trump. In the run up to the election of a new Labour Party Leader 4 years ago, the four candidates were invited by LBC radio to quiz each other. You can see the questions to Jeremy Corbyn here. There are two points of note. Firstly, when asked if he wants to be Prime Minister he ducks the question several times, instead referring to the ideological changes he wants to make within the Labour Party. Secondly when asked about his qualifications and experience to be leader of a major political party his answer is objectively underwhelming – before being an MP, he says, he had been a local councillor for 10 years. I don’t think it is difficult to relate those answers in 2015 to the current divided state of the Labour Party.

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