From top: Michael Bernier addressing the dáil last week; Derek Mooney
Last Thursday, the EU’s chief negotiator in the Brexit process, Michel Barnier addressed the Oireachtas. While M. Barnier’s speech was, not surprisingly, short on detail it still contained sufficient key phrases, including this one:
I want to reassure the Irish people that in these negotiations, Ireland’s interests will be the European Union’s interests. We are in these negotiations together and a united EU will be there for Ireland
to reassure most of the assembled Deputies and Senators that he (and his considerable team of technocrats and negotiators) understand and have Ireland’s interests at heart.
It was a strong performance from the well regarded and highly experienced French politician. To his credit, he not only addressed the Dáil and Seanad, he then sat through some fourteen individual responses from party and groups leaders plus independent TDs and Senators.And he did all this while perched on a seat facing the Ceann Comhairle, just in front of Brendan Howlin and Gerry Adams.
Perhaps this was some bizarre cruel and unusual trial by ordeal set by the Dáil’s committee on procedures and privileges to test his stamina and fortitude? If so, he passed it easily.
Throughout his speech Barnier referred to the importance and significance of the actual negotiations themselves, using the word “negotiate” itself, or a variation on it, about a dozen times, including this important reference towards the end of his address:
“If we put things in the right order, if we negotiate with mutual respect, without any aggression or naivety and are open to finding solutions, there is no reason our strong Europe cannot maintain a strong relationship with the UK.”
The inclusion of the word “naivety” here – along with the word “aggression” – has some significance. Over the past few weeks, and particularly since the announcement of the UK general election, it has seemed that Theresa May and her ministers have been deliberately ignoring the usual dynamics of negotiation.
Speak with anyone with experience in negotiation, be it in labour relations or conflict resolution, and they will tell you how easily things can go wrong when the basic rules and principles are ignored.
They are not that complicated. Negotiations are general seen as either a positive or a zero-sum game and you adjust your approach, as appropriate, to get the result you want.
This requires a lot of preparation – including preparation around two key negotiating process dynamics.
The first of these is “attitudinal structuring” or, in other words, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. It involves getting the other party to start to see things from your point of view, and to begin to change their own attitudes accordingly.
The second one is, “expectation management”. That involves getting your own people prepared for likely outcomes and not running the risk of seeing delivery of any negotiation outcome fail because you over promised and then under-delivered.
On none of these three areas have the UK made any realistic moves. Rather they have insisted on badly playing their already lousy hand of self-dealt cards.
The preparation has been minimal with the boss of the top civil servants trade union bemoaning the fact that May’s government has under invested in the civil service with many senior civil servants are already working six and seven day weeks trying to prepare for Brexit negotiation.
Apart from some the occasional soothing noise from the UK’s Brexit Secretary, David Davis, there has been virtually no attempt to “structure the attitude” of the EU towards the UK in a favourable direction. The traffic has been all in the other direction with senior ministers on May’s cabinet hurling insults and accusations across the channel as if they were rehearsing for a black and white episode of Dad’s Army.
What we have seen from the British Prime Minister and her team is a war on two front, not a preparation for a serious negotiation. The first front, is the one across the English Channel (and the Irish Sea) as they see themselves fighting a verbal war for liberation from a despotic and evil EU empire.
The second is the home front, but this front set along the land border with Scotland and the sea one with Northern Ireland, not downtown Walmington-on-Sea.
Where once May spoke of listening to the Brexit concerns and worries of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and certain parts of Northern Ireland, she now studiously ignores them. It is worth noting that she spent more time electioneering at the Balmoral Show in Belfast last Friday than she had on the ground attempting to get the institutions up and running.
The net result of the hostilities on these two battlefronts is that she has raised expectations as to what she can achieve from Brexit to such a pitch that it cannot be delivered.
Indeed, the stakes are being raised on the other side of the negotiations. As I write this I see that President Macron has announced the appointment of Edouard Philippe as his Prime Minister.
Not only is Philippe a member of the centre right Les Republicains party, a signal of Macron’s outreach to them, he is also – as Mayor of Le Havre – an avowed critic of the Le Touquet Agreement – this could see all those refugee camps move from Calais to Dover and beyond.
While Theresa May has been politically astute in calling the election now and avoiding a more fraught campaign in the immediate aftermath of whatever eventually emerges from the Article 50 negotiations, she has over hyped the rhetoric and overheated the expectations from Brexit.
She has also considerably increased the chances of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. It is why Barnier warns of the perils of “naivety” and “aggression” in negotiations and why it was particularly important for him to do so in the parliament chamber of the EU member state poised to pay the heaviest price for such British folly.
About the only positive thing you can say for this early election is that it may mean that Boris Johnson won’t be Foreign Secretary after June 9th and an actual fully formed and sentient adult may be put in charge of the Foreign Office.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney