Art of the deal in diplomacy is not to walk from the table

InFacts,  06.04.2019
David H.A. Hannay, miembro de la Cámara de los Lores y ex embajador británico (UE-ONU)

Sitting through seven hours of shameless filibustering in the House of Lords last Thursday, as a gang of ultra-Brexiter Conservatives did their best to wreck the Cooper-Letwin Bill designed to mandate the prime minister to extend the Article 50 negotiating period, was painful enough. But the endless assertions that passing the Bill through all its stages in one day – as was eventually agreed to be done on Monday – would bring British democracy to its knees, open the door to dictatorship, ruin the reputation of the House of Lords and much else of that kind, was a mild soporific.

And then I heard one of the gang, who shall remain nameless as he is one of the dimmer bulbs in the pro-Brexit firmament, beginning to lecture on how it was impossible to negotiate successfully unless you were prepared to, and actually did, walk away from the negotiating table. As a business man he could tell us that refusal to do that had doomed the prime minister’s Article 50 negotiations from the outset. Apart from hair colour and accent, it could have been Donald Trump lecturing on “The Art of the Deal”.

Having myself spent much of the past fifty-five years in international negotiations, not all of which have been complete failures – the UK budget rebate, the establishment of the single market, designing Britain’s euro opt-out, the UN authorisation of the use of force to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 – I thought I would test the speaker’s thesis against actual experience.

Take Cyprus, a problem to the solution of which I devoted seven, ultimately fruitless, years. Each side of the dispute, both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, has frequently walked away from the negotiating table, indeed they spent more time doing that than they did in negotiation. But it produced no results, leaving the island divided, insecure and less prosperous than it would otherwise have been.

Take also the Israelis and the Palestinians. They too, particularly the Israelis, have walked away from the negotiating table on a number of occasions. That dispute also remains, if anything, further from resolution than it has ever been.

And then take the negotiations to establish the UN, NATO and the European Communities. Would they have been as successful at laying the foundations of international peace, security and prosperity if any of the participants had threatened to walk away if they did not get everything they wanted? Of course not.

The real lessons are that neither empty chairs nor the drawing of red lines and refusing to compromise on them has proved to be a recipe for success in international negotiations between states, however successful those tactics may have proved in reaching business deals. So the prime minister is surely right now, at last, to have turned her back on such foolish advice.

The trouble is that too many of her supporters remain wedded to that sort of thinking, and her own lack of imagination and flexibility are preventing her from successfully setting a new course in shaping our future relationship with the EU 27.

Rejecting leaving the EU without a deal is the wise thing to do. But it does not bring us closer to a viable solution, just a bit further away from a deeply damaging one.

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