The suggestion that Brexit negotiations are going poorly for the UK is a difficult one to refute.
By any objective measure, the “deal” Theresa May has been touting as the best possible outcome clearly doesn’t implement what the voters demanded she implement; The United Kingdom would still be subject to the majority of rules and regulations of the EU institutions but without the current ability to influence (albeit fractionally) the creation and amendment of said rules.
Negotiation is a very specific skill requiring a thoughtful strategy, access to as many relevant data points as possible and the maturity and strength of character to compromise or hold to key principles.
Many professionals earn a good living from undertaking the role of negotiator on behalf of clients; depending on the transaction one is undertaking, a lawyer, for example, is acting as your negotiator.
However, the one aspect a professional negotiator or, in the case of Brexit, a huge army of negotiators, can’t control is the competence and moral character of the “client”.
Imagine, for example, if the Prime Minister and cabinet were firmly of the opinion that the British public had chosen the correct option in the referendum and that the EU was a corrupt den of anti-democratic authoritarians who couldn’t be trusted to negotiate in good faith. The Brexit negotiations’ timeline might have looked something like this;
– 24th June 2016 – Article 50 delivered to the EU along with a telephone number printed on a business card with the words, “Your call is important to us. Please do let us know if you have an offer which you feel may be of interest to the people of the United Kingdom. Please note, this number will only be staffed between 2pm and 3pm on the first Tuesday of each month“.
– 24th June 2016 – The “Direct Debit” arrangements from all UK government bank accounts to the EU are cancelled.
– 24th June 2016 – The responsibility for the detailed planning for a move to WTO rules on 24th June 2018 is delegated to the relevant agencies and peak industry bodies. Note; delegated not micro-managed, as this is what they get paid for.
– That’s it. If the EU offered any deal that improves on WTO arrangements whilst still resulting in the UK leaving, a separate team would be tasked with reviewing and comparing it. However, work on the WTO option would continue at full speed.
That this, or a version thereof, wasn’t the approach tells us (and, more importantly, told the EU negotiation team) one crucial fact. The UK government has never had a credible BATNA. There was no palatable Plan B ready in case the EU negotiated in bad faith, nor was one even contemplated.
The EU haven’t played this particularly well, they didn’t need to, the UK negotiators were hamstrung from the start by a clear requirement from the “client” that a deal must be done at all cost…… which is the equivalent of trying to negotiate the price of an ice-cream while you have a crying child with you.
In years to come, Theresa May’s incompetent handling of the negotiations will be seen as a case study in what not to do.
That statement assumes, of course, that she really did intend to implement an exit from the EU, its rules, regulations and institutions.
Many observers might question that assumption.