I plan to write lots of things here on how the Brexit situation casts light on Negotiation Theory and Practice. I won’t be alone. The problems and opportunities created by the UK’s Brexit vote will give negotiation pundits material for decades, maybe centuries.

Let’s start with some very big picture observations. Above all, what’s the UK/EU negotiation really about?

In our Negotiation masterclasses my colleagues and I assert that any negotiation (buying a car, haggling with relatives, policy over Cyprus/Syria/Crimea etc) boils down to some combination of the following:





Time / Certainty

There can be trading within these categories and between these categories. One classic diplomatic example is the 1979 Israel/Egypt peace treaty. Israel returned Sinai to Egyptian control in return for security guarantees with mutual recognition: you give us Security – we give you Control, and we both get added Reputation. 

More generally, this simple way of looking at negotiation also explains why eg Cyprus and ‘Arab/Israel’ and North Korea negotiations never get anywhere much. Once the ultimate issue of Security is at stake (do Cyprus/Israel/N Korea exist or not as independent states?), there’s not much flexibility on the side of the party threatened with not existing.

Next. Negotiations are like Shrek (and onions). They have layers:

Look at the layers in the Serbia/Kosovo problem:

  • Serbs v Albanians
  • Serbia’s (and Bosnia’s?) borders / identity
  • Albanians v Slavs v Greeks
  • Precedents: Abkhazia / Moldova / Scotland
  • Peace v justice
  • EU / US and EU / Russia
  • EU v itself
  • Who decides?

Or Ukraine/Russia/Crimea:

  • Russians v Ukrainians
  • Russia / Ukraine / Moldova borders and identity
  • Russians v Ukrainians v Tatars v Poles v Germans
  • Precedents: Kosovo / Moldova / Scotland
  • Peace v justice
  • EU / US and EU / Russia
  • EU v itself
  • Who decides?

Or Syria:

  • Syrians v Syrians
  • Shia v Sunni v Alawites
  • USA v Russia v Iran v Turkey v Saudi Arabia
  • Assad must go v Assad must stay
  • Syria v Lebanon v Israel
  • ISIS v everyone
  • Peace v justice
  • Past v future
  • Who decides?

Or buying a house:

  • Money / greed / desperation
  • Work / school / convenience
  • Location location location
  • Urgency / Time (compounding gains and losses)
  • What to do with all our stuff if we downsize?
  • Dog
  • Who decides? How to decide?!

Note that in each case all sorts of issues are involved in (or at least will be influenced by) any outcome, agreed or otherwise. So things quickly can get fiendishly complicated. But that in each case, the ‘framing’ of the negotiation is decided by two issues that themselves need negotiating:

  • Who decides?
  • Who decides who decides?

This last one is often the most vital factor. Why? Because those who decide who decide have ultimate say in setting the key parameters of what’s on the table and who gets to sit at the table.

Look at the Dayton peace negotiations for Bosnia. The Americans used various brutish power-plays to force through a process on their terms. They decided who physically was at the Dayton airforce base, hereby ensuring that the final deal was achieved without any Bosnian forces for moderation (such as they were) being present. The key signatories from the region were President Izetbegović for Bosnia plus Presidents Tudjman and Milošević for Croatia/Serbia respectively. As Carl Bildt glumly would put it, Dayton was a murky ‘deal’ imposed by the USA featuring “Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia with Little Bosnia”. Note that the very philosophical inconsistencies in the Dayton deal were needed to give the three Bosnian communities enough Security/Resources/Control to accept it.

Back to UK/EU.

We are already seeing sharp skirmishes over the central questions that boil down to highly practical issues. Who leads the negotiation process on the EU side? Who’s in the room? Who prepares the papers and drafts the records? 

These seemingly mundane matters are central as they reflect the emerging struggle for power between two huge ideas that the UK’s Brexit vote mercilessly opens up. European Supranationalism (ie the primacy of EU institutions) or European Intergovernmentalism (ie the primacy of EU member states):

The European Parliament on Tuesday voted to have the Commission lead the talks. According to one European commissioner, speaking on condition of anonymity, on Monday “the college [of commissioners] asked President Juncker to declare that the Commission is ready to take the lead in the negotiations.”

Commissioners handed Juncker that mandate in reaction to quick decision by national governments to appoint Didier Seeuws, a Belgian diplomat, to lead the negotiations at the head of a special taskforce at the Council. Seeuws was chief of staff to former European Council President Herman Van Rompuy. That worries European commissioners, with one noting that the Council taskforce “could be a first step to … taking over the leading role in the negotiations.”

… Colleagues of Juncker’s chief of staff Martin Selmayr said he was furious at the appointment of Seeuws. Addressing an internal Commission meeting Monday, Selmayr was “super pissed off,” according to one colleague in the room. It’s “definitely a power grab” by the Council, said another Commission chief of staff, who was at Monday’s meeting.

So, let’s conclude this one by offering just some of the layers of the Brexit negotiations:

  • Supranationalism v Intergovernmentalism
  • Democracy v efficiency
  • Elites v voters
  • Eurozone v Deutsche Bank
  • UK v France v Germany v Italy v Holland v Poland
  • Europe v Russia v USA
  • Globalisation v Control
  • EP/European Commission v European Council/member states
  • Personal ambitions and reputations
  • England v Scotland
  • Conservative v Labour
  • Precedents
  • Past v Future
  • Who decides?
  • Who decides who decides?


How best to set up a manageable process? Call in Tony Blair, of course!

“There is going to be a negotiation of extraordinary complexity where there are a thousand devils in every detail. Those we used to call ‘our European partners’ are, unsurprisingly, divided and uncertain themselves.” He said some countries wanted a quick divorce, while others favoured a delay in commencing the article 50 process, which starts a two-year countdown to Brexit.

“This needs serious statesmanship,” he said. “So before any formal negotiation begins, we need to get a high level sense of where the boundaries are going to be, the things that might be compromised, the things that are red lines.

“The psychology of the other 27 countries is crucial to feel and shape: they could decide that other secessionist movements should be deterred and so be disinclined to flexibility; or they could decide that the British view – especially on immigration – reflects something strong across Europe and have a measured response which tries to accommodate that sentiment.”

Hmm. Smart. As is Ronie the Fly, who identifies a possible top-level deal where there’s a trade-off between Free Movement of Money and Free Movement of People:

True, you never know in #negotiation, but surely FM of Financial Capital for FM of Human Capital?

T Blair is right. We DO need a ‘high level sense’ of what an outcome might be like before we start serious talking. And that’s what will start to emerge once the UK has a new Prime Minister who sits down to talk quietly to Angela Merkel and other EU national leaders. They’ll decide who decides.