A lesson from Brexit? We need to develop our negotiating skills

Today is the day when the UK was supposed to leave the European Union. That is now not going to happen as Parliament wrestles with both the government and an array of different options.

Whatever your views on the merits of leaving or remaining, the fact that there is still no clear destination for Brexit represents a failure of the negotiations. This, in turn, has created huge uncertainty for business, costs for local authorities in preparing for no deal and intense conflict between remainers and leavers as the volume of divisive rhetoric has increased.

At times, the tactics pursued by our negotiating team have provided a classroom case-study of the ‘art of no deal’.

At the outset, allowing the talks over withdrawal and the future relationship to be separated handed Michel Barnier and his team a huge bargaining advantage. Then, announcing a set of red lines at an early point in the talks made any meaningful manoeuvring virtually impossible. At the same time, the UK’s fall-back position has neither been clear nor deliverable.

Even apprentice negotiators are trained to work out their ‘Best Alternative To A Negotiated Agreement’ or BATNA. In short, to develop a coherent strategy you need to know what the implications of a ‘no deal’ are.

The EU has never been convinced that a no-deal Brexit was a realistic or sustainable alternative for the UK, undermining the UK’s bargaining position. As Simon Coveney, the Deputy Head of the Irish Government and its Minister for Trade and Foreign Affairs said of the UK’s approach: ”It's like saying give me what I want or I'm jumping out the window.”

Of course, the reasons for the failure of the negotiations are complex and rooted in the political dysfunction of both our major parties. Nonetheless, it could be argued that UK PLC as a whole has lost its negotiating know-how.

Just a month after the referendum, Sir Oliver Letwin MP, then head of the UK government’s Brexit unit, admitted that the British civil service had no trade negotiators - that’s right, ZERO.

This compared to Canada, who had 300 trade specialists and the European Commission who could call on 600 bargaining experts.

Perhaps this skills deficit is a function of the UKs reliance on European structures of regulation to define our relationships and the way we do business. However, it also reflects a deeper problem. Fundamentally, the UK and the EU speak completely different negotiating languages.

In the UK, we tend to bargain distributively, trying to get the best deal or the biggest slice of the pie. We often adopt adversarial approaches and this is reflected in our Courts and, of course, in the Punch and Judy politics of Prime Minister’s Questions. It is perhaps no surprise that MPs have tended to focus on what divides them rather than what they can agree on.

This stands in stark contrast to the European Commission, which instinctively focuses on a more collaborative approach, attempting to identify common and mutual interests.

For Michel Barnier therefore, Brexit is not a battle to be won or lost but a difficult problem to be solved, a conflict to be resolved. This in turn reflects the idea of social partnership which runs through the European Union like a stick of rock but which has had little place in the political economy of the UK.

This also has important implications for the UK as both an economy and society after the final curtain has fallen on the Brexit psychodrama.

If the UK leaves the regulatory comfort blanket of the EU, firms will need to negotiate contracts with new customers and trading partners. 

The public and private sector will need to rebuild regulatory mechanisms and frameworks while employers will need to forge high trust relationships with employees in the context of scarce skills and the pressure to compete in global markets.

Furthermore, society as a whole will need to find a way to heal the divisions between different identity groups, classes and generations caused by Brexit.

What can we do about this? Organisations need to start to think about how they can develop the skills they need to survive and prosper post-Brexit.

To date, there has been a focus on the impact of reduced freedom of movement and particularly on how we can secure vital technical expertise, but we also need to think about how we can develop the managerial capabilities that are crucial to solving the UK’s productivity puzzle.

It is also important that we provide students and graduates with the relational skills they need to negotiate positive relationships both inside and outside the workplace. Crucially, these skills are only going to become more important in an age of automation and artificial intelligence.

Finally, communities need to develop the capacity to begin to heal some of the divisions caused by the overheated rhetoric of Brexit. We need to move our attention from our positions, from the issues on which we disagree, and instead focus on our long-term needs and interests, finding common ground and a positive way forward for the future.

The iSPER Brexit Series

Since the British public voted to leave the European Union, there has been widespread conjecture as governments across Europe and beyond try to assess the political and social ramifications of the result. 

As such, policy makers face a number of challenges in light of the increased responsibility placed on them – as areas of legislation previously under EU competence will soon be decided nationally.

In this project led by the Institute for Social, Policy and Enterprise Research (iSPER) leading academics across a range of fields attempt to shed light on how the referendum result might affect their areas of expertise.

Find out more about The iSPER Brexit Series