It is often claimed that politics is the art of the possible. But if so, then politics is driven by the sole purpose of achieving what can be achieved instead of what should be achieved. Realpolitik is much more interested in pragmatism than it is in ideology. Increasingly we become devoted more and more to the idea of compromise without recognizing the necessity to justify its added value. As such, politics has turned into a caricature of itself palpable through the dictum of ‘any deal is better than no deal’.
Nowhere else in recent history has this become more obvious than in the case of Brexit. Three years after the EU referendum in which the majority of UK voters chose to leave the EU, the UK is yet to realize its ambition to leave. The government has failed to deliver a decisive outcome, leaving all sides of the barricade, the Brexiters, Remainers as well as the EU, unsatisfied and frustrated. While the intentions of the UK government may have been noble, its strategy of compromise at all cost has proven to be highly ineffective and counterproductive.
So where has the UK government gone wrong? It is important to note from the outset that the situation in which the current UK government found itself, following the EU referendum, was not easy and not of its choosing (the previous government would have preferred to stay in the EU). That said, while the government did not choose the starting point, it would be a mistake to assume it was not in control of the direction of the journey and the final destination itself.
Mistake 1: Self-imposed pressure
The fist major stumble on the part of the UK can be traced to the very beginning of the negotiations. On 29 March 2017 the UK invoked Article 50 and started the two-year countdown towards Brexit. One month later, the EU agreed its negotiating guidelines and decided to pursue the negotiations in two phases. First, the UK would have to agree on a more technical and complicated Withdrawal Agreement which included, among other things the necessity of settling the accounts between the two sides. Second, only after a substantial progress has been made in the first phase could the EU proceed to negotiating the future relationship.
While the EU could not have legally finalized and concluded its post-Brexit relations with the UK until after the country has left the EU, the two sides had a choice which aspect of the negotiations (phase 1 or phase 2) they would put an emphasis on. The EU had nothing to lose by sticking to the proposed sequence of events and the emphasis on phase 1. At best the negotiations would have primarily addressed what the EU regarded as the most important issues (the UK’s contribution to the budget, Ireland and EU citizens’ rights); and at worst, the negotiations would have stalled and the UK would get under increasing pressure to make concessions in the first phase in order to move to phase 2.
The UK, for its part, clearly underestimated the complexity of the negotiations – time wise as well as politically. Left with no other choice, the UK Prime Minister proposed in September 2017 a transition period de facto postponing the country’s full Brexit.
Mistake 2: Bad deal better than no deal?
As explained by a former FBI negotiator Chris Voss in his book “Never split the difference”, no deal is better than bad deal. Although Chris Voss demonstrated the usefulness of this principle mostly in the context of hostage situations and commercial negotiations, the appearance of being willing and prepared to walk away from a bad deal applies just as potently in politics as it does in these areas of life. That is because humans are wired up to invest more time, effort and money to avoid losses than to achieving further gains. Convincing the European partners of the UK’s readiness to leave the EU without a deal was the UK’s best chance of achieving a good deal.
It is a paradox of any successful negotiation. But it was a paradox, which was not understood or utilized by the UK. In fact, the UK government was doing everything possible, despite its rhetoric, to underline that it was not actively preparing for the possibility of no-deal Brexit. The consequence of this was the sub-optimal Withdrawal Agreement agreed between the government and the EU and the lack of flexibility on the part of Brussels once it became obvious this Agreement would not be approved by the UK Parliament. The UK was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Either it accepts a bad deal or it postpones Brexit altogether – either of the two worked fine for the EU and neither of them was preferred by the UK.
Mistake 3: Playing two-dimensional chess on a three-dimensional checkerboard
Any negotiation that cuts across institutions, countries as well as political lines is bound to be complicated. Brexit was never going to be an easy task, even if the current and previous governments had performed due diligence and prepared for the negotiations. But while some of these failures can be laid at the feet of objective reasons – for instance, the UK lacked trade negotiators as those of British origins worked in effect for the EU in Brussels – others cannot be explained away in a similar fashion. The blatant disregard to domestic politics has made it virtually impossible to complete and implement the EU-UK deal.
Leaving aside the qualitative assessment of the deal itself, in principle it is of no use to agree on something with your EU counterparts only to realize that your own Parliament would sink it. The UK government failed to recognize that it was playing a two-dimensional chess on a checkerboard that had an extra dimension – domestic politics. Either out of lack of interest or carelessness, Theresa May made a mistake when she took the UK Parliament for granted – a Parliament that has voted three times to reject the deal and has undermined the government’s position on numerous accounts.
While it could be tempting to pretend otherwise, politicians are humans and they are prone to making mistakes. International negotiations, especially those that require overcoming numerous obstacles are like walking on a tight rope ten thousand feet above the ground. Each step has to be carefully measured in order not to lose your balance. And yet, the appearance of losing your balance and falling may, strangely enough, incentivize others to help you along the way.
It is a paradox that is underpinned by our innate inclination towards loss aversion; a paradox that could have helped the UK secure a better deal with the EU. But the realization of this paradox alone would not have saved the UK from the current constitutional crisis. A more robust approach towards the EU and more empathy with domestic audience and politics would have been needed on top of that. As a result, the UK would have had, at the very least, a better chance of avoiding becoming the victim of its own indecision – an indecision that has resulted not only in the UK’s ineptitude to implement what it wants, but worse still, in the country becoming unsure of what it wants in the first place.
Three Mistakes of UK Government in Brexit Negotiations – Forbes