January 2019 |

The comments below are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of Proxima.

As we lurch closer towards what seems to be Theresa May’s inevitable failure to convince Parliament, let alone the country as a whole, of the merits of the UK’s Brexit deal with the EU, I have been considering how we have ended up in a situation that seems not to meet anyone’s needs, and even less, their desires. Regardless of your “Remain” or “Leave” standpoint, most of us would agree that the process of agreeing on the Brexit terms has been managed poorly, and that the current uncertain outcome should be considered a failure of the negotiations.

As I thought further about this, I have come to the opinion that this failure established its roots at the very outset of the process, maybe even in the referendum campaign itself. For me, the UK’s fundamental flaw was not one of strategy, tactics, or even the lack of clear objectives (all of which have been well-documented) – it’s actually the perspective with which we entered the whole process.

The campaign rhetoric and the subsequent reaction to the referendum result, told us that the UK would be able to negotiate the “easiest deal in human history,” that “there will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside,” and that “too many people… seem to think the UK is a weak petitioner which has to be very careful in case we are expelled from the single market.

The tone of voice from our politicians, one that continues to a large extent, (including Jeremy Corbyn saying “[We will] say to the government, “You’ve got to go back and negotiate something else”) has been one that views the process as a confrontational negotiation between two parties with conflicting, or at best parallel objectives, where success means one party moving towards the other to reach a “deal”: “We made compromises… and we do need to see that matched on the EU’s side.

This approach, whilst appealing to the popular vote and grabbing headlines, led the electorate to believe that “having cake and eating it” might indeed be feasible. Instead it bred distrust between the negotiators, created “winners” and “losers” in relation to each of the areas being discussed, and consequently, when compromise finally became reality, the final deal has inevitably been deemed unacceptable.

However, on the EU’s side of the table, I have consistently seen a different stance taken.

This should not have been seen as a “negotiation” but rather as a problem-solving exercise.

The referendum result presented us with a challenge. We voted to leave a highly complex institution, with wide-ranging political, economic and personal ramifications as a consequence. Michel Barnier asked “what becomes of this divergence? Is it controlled, inspected, checked? Or does it become a tool of regulatory competition with consequences for social, economic and consumer rights.

The EU therefore presented ways to manage the issues of the Irish border, citizens’ rights, and trading in goods and services within the immutable “four freedoms” of goods, services, capital, and people; openly recognising the challenges these might present to the UK electorate. They invited the UK to present alternatives or discuss how these could be delivered within a cohesive package of proposals.

IR35-Private-Sector-Brexit_smThe UK’s “negotiators”, however, at least in their public rhetoric, seem to have taken offence at this attempt to solve problems. Instead, they have preferred to play to the public’s desire to be seen to wring concessions and special treatment from their counterparts (see, for example the rhetoric in Theresa May’s statement after the Salzburg meeting in September 2017).

In my many years of seeking to structure long-term business arrangements, I can say with confidence that the best deals are those which seek, at the outset, to address the reasons behind a desired change. Whether that be reducing cost, improving productivity or efficiency, meeting new regulatory requirements, or driving creativity and innovation, the most successful negotiations are done in a spirit of cooperation, trust and mutual respect for each other’s long term objectives.

At least outwardly, each of these three pillars, cooperation, trust, and mutual respect, seems to be missing from the Brexit “negotiation” process and within Westminster itself.

Whatever happens next, we will have to work with the EU for decades to come. For me, the process we have gone through has undermined that relationship, regardless of the political or legal situation we find ourselves in over the next few years. It will take significant time to rebuild trust and restore our ability to mutually address the challenges of world trade, the environment, human rights and conflict; all of which are far more important to me than concepts of “sovereignty”, “borders” and “taking back control”.

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