How to negotiate Brexit

LBS experts explain golden rules of negotiation

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The clamour for a public blueprint of the UK Government’s EU exit strategy is growing from both public and parliamentary quarters. And with the High Court ruling that Parliament must vote on a proper bill to trigger Article 50, MPs and Peers could be one step closer to a chance to shape the Brexit deal. But how exactly should that deal be negotiated?

Two London Business School negotiation experts give their views.

Professor Madan Pillutla and Dr Ena Inesi, who teach on London Business School’s flagship MBA programme as well as its Executive Education course, Negotiating and Influencing Skills for Senior Managers, explain: “The first golden rule of negotiation is that information is power. One of the trickiest aspects of this negotiation is the desire for the UK negotiation strategy to be made public in advance of the negotiation. Too much detail aired in public will put the UK at a disadvantage.”

Sharing too much detail with constituents in advance of a negotiation can bring other consequences as well. By way of example, Pillutla points to the former Prime Minister David Cameron’s efforts to negotiate an EU reform deal that would give the UK an opt-out from ever closer union, and greater powers for national parliaments to block EU legislation.

“Cameron did achieve concessions, like the restriction on benefits for new migrants from EU states,” says Pillutla. “But negotiation always involves compromise and Cameron set out in such fine detail the results he wanted to achieve, he looked like he had failed by comparison.” Better, Pillutla and Inesi agree, is to negotiate the deal on broad principles. “Say what you want to achieve but not exactly what the outcome should look like. Lots of treaties are negotiated in this manner,” Pillutla adds.

The second rule is to let go of historic arguments. “Framing the negotiation as ‘us versus them’ misses a ton of interests and opportunities,” says Inesi. Interests like those of other nation states who are unhappy with the EU status quo, or those of non-EU trading partners such as the US with its new President-elect. “And Brexit could genuinely present an opportunity to work with Holland, or Germany, which also wants to see changes in the EU,” Pillutla adds.

Inesi suggests government negotiators spend time considering the “common ground” – something the other 27 EU states want to do, where the UK can co-opt them as supporters. Despite strong dispute over the UK’s desire for access to the free market without freedom of movement, “we still have more in common than not,” Inesi says.

Finally, the negotiators of the UK’s exit deal need to be disciplined. “Negotiators are human,” Pillutla says, but they must be disciplined and not react to every provocation. Pillutla believes May has started out strong, successfully refusing to “rise to Hollande’s bait”. But negotiators will also need to not see every issue as a “power grab”, the two experts say. “For example agreeing to the other party’s demand may not even be a concession,” Pillutla adds. “50 per cent of the EU rules like the rules on climate change, for example, are good practice and should be adopted by the UK.”

Moments of uncertainty and loss, the two warn, can all too easily result in “threat rigidity”, but this is not the response they advise. “Uncertainty is debilitating,” Inesi explains. “But seeing it as the problem is the problem – and it won’t make for a successful negotiation. Some, if not massive change, is going to happen. The job of the Brexit negotiators and business more broadly, is to look outward, get information and set business and the country up for change.”