How (not) to negotiate (pt.1)

As part of my module on Negotiating Politics, we had a discussion yesterday about last week’s European Council in Brussels, as a real-world example of what they study in the classroom.  In all the discussion about the UK and its role (about which my colleague Alex Warleigh-Lack has written here), it is worthwhile spending some time considering the meeting in more general terms.

From the perspective of negotiation technique, a number of basic problems were apparent.  Firstly, the preparation on all sides was weak.  In the weeks running up to the summit, there was a noticeable lack of concrete proposals being put on the table, and little in the way of sounding-out of different positions (and their underlying interests).  Even the Franco-German pair were only able to move to a common set of positions a few days beforehand, with the EPP only meeting on the morning of the summit itself.  The lack of time for different countries to consider their response to such moves was always likely to make agreement more difficult.

Secondly, countries seemed to be unable or unwilling to reconfigure their positions in light of the discussions.  Around Europe, the talk was of ‘national interest’, rather than of any common good.  Indeed, it was hard to spot anyone who wasn’t much more concerned about their domestic audience than the need to address the matter at hand.  What makes this more surprising is the simple fact that a failure to resolve the sovereign debt crisis and allow the eurozone economy to move more clearly into a period of growth would have deep and catastrophic effects on all European states (eurozone members or not): witness how George Osborne’s entire Autumn Statement was predicated on a stable eurozone.

Thirdly, there was only very limited effort to get buy-in from states.  As The Economist noted, there wasn’t much enthusiasm at all for treaty change, bar Germany, until the UK made clear its unwillingness to amend its position.  As much as the UK was foolish to push itself out of the agreement (which can only store up trouble for the future), so the other member states were foolish to let it go, especially for an agreement that does not inspire much confidence in either national capitals or on the markets.

Finally, it was apparent that trust plays an important role in negotiation.  This is the first time that a European Council has ended with an agreement that excludes a member state and that sits outside the treaty structures and this all reflects the difficulties of managing an ever-larger, ever more heterogeneous group of countries.  Too many people sitting around the table confused honesty with acting in good faith, inflexibility with principle.  Certainly, it’s hard to see how the UK can pursue its other objectives in the EU while other states remember this summit.

Last week, I was talking in Brussels, and I observed in that we live in an EU that looks a lot like Thatcher’s Bruges Speech, with a liberalising single market and a Nato-led defence.  That’s a view that isn’t usually expressed that way, because of Thatcher’s reputation, even if it is a correct description of the EU today.  However, if there’s one thing to learn about how to negotiate, being able to adapt yourself to the language of others can be a powerful tool.  Perhaps we should send the European Council members off on a team-building exercise…