How the EU can ensure Brexit never happens

A famous, if apocryphal, story is told of the French statesman Georges Clemenceau negotiating to buy a statuette in a bazaar. The shopkeeper offered it for “only” 75 rupees, while the Frenchman counteroffered with 45 rupees. After that, no matter the haggling, he refused to move. And there they were. Stuck.

Eventually the shopkeeper threw up his hands and said: “You are impossible! I’d rather give it to you.” Clemenceau smiled, pocketed the statuette and said: “Done.” And then he added: “You are very kind, and such a kindness could only come from a friend. Allow me to offer you a gift in return. Will you accept 45 rupees for use in charitable works?”

The shopkeeper accepted the money and they parted on good terms.

The European Union is close to a diplomatic and political triumph. Against all the odds it may be able to conclude its negotiation with the United Kingdom achieving everything it could possibly have wanted. All it needs to do now is show the wit, cunning and courage of Clemenceau in the bazaar.

Here is what I think it should do on April 10. Not what it necessarily will do — that changes every hour as Michel Barnier says one thing and Emmanuel Macron says something else — but what it should do. And what it should do is basically nothing. It should tell Britain that it can stay while it wants to. There will be no deadlines, no conditions, no meetings, no more negotiation. Britain should be told to go away and come back when it is ready.

This may strike the EU as counterintuitive. So I should emphasise that I am not proposing this in Britain’s interest, although I think it is. I am proposing this in the EU’s interest. I think it’s the right thing for it to do if it wants to secure a triumph.

In his book Getting Past No, William Ury, one of the founders of the Harvard Program on Negotiation, has this to say: “Breakthrough negotiation is the art of letting the other person have your way.” And the starting point is identifying both your own interests and your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, or Batna. In other words, the arrangement you have to fall back on if you can’t reach a deal. To give an example of a Batna, you are in a much stronger position when negotiating your salary if you have another job offer you can accept if your employer won’t give you a pay rise.

It’s always been in the EU’s interests that Britain should remain a member but that Brussels should not have to abandon its basic principles and in particular its four freedoms: the movement of labour, capital, goods and services. Since at the outset of negotiations this seemed unlikely, the EU has been seeking the best deal short of that. And it’s been helped by the fact that it has a fairly strong Batna and that Britain has a weak one. If the EU can’t get a deal, it can live with the alternative. If Britain can’t, the alternative of living with no deal looks pretty dreadful.

However, it is easy in negotiations to overestimate your Batna. The hard Brexiteers have made this mistake, leading them to wildly overplay a pretty weak hand. Brussels must not make the same mistake. Its Batna is stronger than Britain’s but there are many negotiated deals that would be far better for it than its fallback position.

So it’s still in Brussels’ interests to hang on and get a deal. A deal that would once have seemed highly unlikely but which the grisly errors of the inept hard Brexiteers have made possible. In short, the EU can reasonably aim to keep Britain as a full member.

There is one big thing in the way of securing a good deal. It seems odd to say this when Britain’s behaviour has been so wayward. But the biggest obstacle to Brussels getting what it wants is the EU itself. One of the main obstacles in the way of a successful negotiation is frustration. Who wouldn’t be frustrated negotiating with us? It’s completely understandable.

And totally counterproductive. The overwhelming temptation when dealing with difficult people is to give up and walk out. And that is why Ury advises that “the first step is to control your own behaviour. Instead of reacting, you need to regain your mental balance and stay focused on achieving what you want. The first challenge is don’t react.” This is known as “going to the balcony”, a place from which you can calmly see the problem.

Frustration would dictate telling Britain that if it can’t meet the Brexit deadline and can’t make up its mind what to do next, it should get stuffed. The EU has a life to lead and it is fed up with the uncertainty. Yet from the balcony things look different.

There is no majority in parliament for leaving without a deal. An attempt by the government to make it do so would fail. It is therefore only the EU that can insist on no deal. And, aside from frustration, why would it do so?

Once a long extension to our negotiations with the EU begins there is a good chance that Brexit will never happen. The most likely scenario is that an attempt by the government to break the deadlock, possibly under a new, harder-line prime minister, brings the Tory government to an end. And it is replaced by a Jeremy Corbyn government elected on a promise of a referendum that offers the choice between remaining and a soft Brexit. Alternatively (a smaller chance, this) the Tories may belatedly appreciate that a second referendum is better for them than an election.

What is the downside in waiting for this? The worst that can happen is that a no-deal prime minister somehow survives or wins an election or, ultimately, that no-deal wins a referendum. Then the EU would be back to its Batna. Which is where it would be in a week’s time anyway. So it will have lost little.

An alternative strategy, of course, would be to make an extension contingent on Britain holding a second referendum. Or using the timetable to try to force a choice between revoking Article 50 and no deal. Yet both these contradict the theory of good negotiation.

The EU wants to win the war, not the battle. It shouldn’t force Britain to a conclusion it will reject or resent. It should instead allow the country to reach its own conclusion. As Ury puts it, “an imposed outcome is an unstable one. Even if you have a decisive power advantage, you should think twice before lunging for victory.” Britain has been offered a deal which it should have accepted but seems likely to reject. Does the EU have the imagination to realise this is not a threat? It’s an opportunity.

Daniel Finkelstein

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