Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda: Has negotiating a good Brexit deal become the impossible task?

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda: Has negotiating a good Brexit deal become the impossible task?

The Brexit deadline looms ever closer and as Britain heads towards a possibly disastrous outcome, negotiations nevertheless remain in full force, whilst becoming seemingly more chaotic by the day. It is more difficult than ever to predict how the UK will leave the European Union, and what state we could possibly be left in if we simply crash out, leaving businesses across the UK in utter confusion and uncertain of their trading future. The key to a beneficial Brexit deal clearly lies in negotiations, but has it become so unnecessarily complex that a deal is now an impossible task? With the EU refusing to budge over the Irish backstop and the UK unwilling to make any further concessions, is a no-deal the only plausible option?

Neil Clothier, Head of Negotiations at Huthwaite International, a leading global provider of sales and negotiation development, warns that Britain is at risk of crashing and burning out of the EU if negotiations aren’t swiftly nailed down. Here Neil looks at the years since the EU Referendum and analyses how negotiating a mutually beneficial deal needn’t have become an impossible task.

Poor stakeholder engagement

As with many aspects of the business world, it starts with forging great relationships and having the skills to navigate and influence key stakeholders, particularly those who have the influence to scupper a deal tricky atmosphere – whether this is in on a shop floor, in a boardroom or in Brussels. And it’s not just about getting along with those you’re negotiating with: A critical first step in corporate business, and indeed in politics, is to sell the deal to key stakeholders with influence, particularly around signing off a deal and its’ implementation. Failure to do so risks making concessions to get a deal, rather than trading value to gain something that has value to you (i.e. control over fishing waters), and we have seen this very situation unfurl as Theresa May has attempted to make her way through the murky Brexit waters.

Unclear negotiation objectives

PMQs and the British media focused a lot on the fact that Corbyn objected to May’s deal but didn’t actually offer one himself, however, until the deal was immortalised at Chequers, May was just as aloof. There were plenty of soundbites and phrases about what she didn’t want, but nothing on what a deal would actually look like: Her objective was too narrow, had little flexibility and a lack of understanding of what we could trade, most-likely due to lack of buy-in from key stakeholders. It appeared to be a take it or leave it type of deal, with very little movement and latitude to trade - which is an essential in an effective negotiation strategy.

Freedom to trade with other countries and control our own borders are all well and good but this isn’t an objective. It didn’t consider what that would mean and what the UK would have to trade in order to get these things (such as the Single Market).

If you don’t know what you need, what you’re trying to achieve, and can’t get agreement and backing from your own stakeholders – in this case MPs – how can you prepare for negotiations, or plan effectively to get the deal you want?

To build a flexible plan and negotiate effectively a negotiator should understand and be clear about the negotiation objectives, i.e. what you want and the potential outcomes that this deal delivers, if you are to achieve your objectives to secure a workable outcome that is satisfactory to all parties. It should take into account the views and potential desirable outcomes of all the parties involved. In the case of Brexit this means the Government, the official opposition and other political parties, needed to gain support from the electorate, the British media and other EU leaders. It’s all too easy to lose sight of what you’re trying to achieve, and so an effective negotiator needs to remain focused.

Weak alternatives

The EU Referendum took place in June 2016 and Article 50 wasn’t triggered until March 2017. What were the Government doing in those nine months? Yes, the country changed Prime Minister but one would be forgiven for presuming that the Government were also getting ready for negotiations in this time.

What they should have been doing is planning for realistic alternative outcomes in case the EU negotiations didn’t go to plan - in this case, it has been no deal. We have heard time and time again that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ but, with the Bank of England, hundreds of businesses and the Government’s own reports saying that no deal is the worst possible outcome, it is clear that no deal isn’t a realistic fall-back that has been examined, evaluated, refined and accepted by the key stakeholders.

Smart negotiators are fully aware of the alternative possibilities outside this deal, and if they’re very strategic, will invest time and resources trying to improve the alternative outcomes while simultaneously negotiating the current one.

Delayed negotiation and time pressures

There have been a number of ‘experts’ and ‘analysts’ who have explained how EU negotiations work, stating that the EU will wait until the very last minute before offering a substantial concession, allowing the deal to pass. These ‘experts’ and ‘analysts’ have voiced the opinion that May and her team should hold their British nerve, watch the clock as it continues to run down, and wait for this miraculous concession. However, this tactic didn’t work for David Cameron in 2015 when trying to get a better deal from the EU to persuade the British public to remain in the European Union, so how can we be sure it will work for May?

The deadline of 29th March is getting closer and closer and with each passing day, it is another day of uncertainty for businesses. The EU know what is at stake for Britain if it leaves with no deal, it knows that businesses are putting more pressure than ever to find an alternative deal that can get through Parliament so they can plan and prepare appropriately. They are using this to continue to pressure Government and without anything substantial to offer in return, it is highly unlikely that there will be a change when it comes to the Irish backstop.

If a deal needs ratifying by Parliament then it would’ve been smart to broadly agree what’s acceptable to Parliament in the first instance before engaging with the EU. Constantly going back to Parliament and being told ‘no’ is akin to seeking permission from our parents to stay out later than we usually do and being told no, then having to tell our friends the bad news!

The deadline is just a few short weeks away, and so Theresa May is very much in danger of making rash decisions in haste. Unskilled negotiators will tend to make concessions if time is tight and the British way of doing things, being punctual, making good our promises and being fair, adds even more pressure to make the deal happen. And so, it’s important that at this late stage heads remain calm and all decisions are considered carefully before conclusions are drawn – through careful and measured negotiation, fuelled with the essential preparation needed, we may well be able to get a good deal out of Brexit after all.


About the Author
Neil Clothier

Written by Neil Clothier

Neil Clothier has been with Huthwaite for 21 years, firstly delivering and designing training, now managing Huthwaite’s team of sales and negotiation strategists. He has worked with sales and procurement divisions in sectors as diverse as logistics, IT, oil & gas, telecoms, pharmaceutical, industrial, government, professional & financial services. He has coached multi-million dollar negotiations gaining buy-in from multiple stakeholders and helping to secure robust mandates and ultimately workable and profitable deals. He is a regular guest speaker including IBM’s Asia Pacific Conference.