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Negotiating Brexit: A cultural perspective

By Michael Gates, former Associate Fellow at Saïd Business School. Michael is an internationally recognised teacher and writer on cross-cultural management, and a regular speaker at events.

The UK and the EU have just concluded one of the most arduous, complex, and extensively reported negotiations in recent political history. 

Of course, the devil will be in the detail of the 1,246-page agreement, but there is a sense of relief from all sides that some sort of deal has finally been done. As someone whose field is cross-cultural negotiation - teaching it around the world for over 20 years, and for more than a decade on the Oxford Programme on Negotiation - I have found the cultural aspects of the Brexit negotiations especially fascinating, and less widely examined than the political and economic issues.

I believe it is instructive to apply culture to the Brexit negotiations - without taking sides - and use it as an emblem for the unique interests, values and needs of the parties in any negotiation whether different national cultures are involved or not.

One of the key elements to any negotiation ... is putting yourself imaginatively in the shoes of the other party.

Remember the 1957 film Twelve Angry Men? Juror 8, played by Henry Fonda, succeeds in persuading the other 11 jury members, all American, to change their minds by projecting himself imaginatively, one by one, into their individual worlds and sub-cultures. This is what the Cambridge Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Jane Heal, calls a process of ‘co-cognition’.

One of the key elements to any negotiation – across cultures or not – is this ‘co-cognition’:  putting yourself imaginatively in the shoes of the other party or parties and getting beyond positions to an understanding of interests – the other’s but also your own. Yet, it is hard to put oneself in the shoes of others, as our own experiences shape who we are and quite naturally trap us in our own perspective. So how does co-cognition apply to the Brexit negotiations?

Conveying your own interests clearly

Let’s first take a look at the different cultural underpinnings of the two chief UK negotiators and their subsequent ability to understand and convey their own interests. Sir Oliver Robbins, Lord Frost’s predecessor as UK Chief Negotiator for Exiting the European Union, may have found it challenging to express the UK’s interests from a Leave perspective. His personal beliefs were demonstrably more aligned with the EU than with the beliefs and culture of those who voted Leave. Lord Frost, as a Leaver, may have found it easier.

Yet even if we have no internal conflict, our own interests may be so self-evident (to us, at least) that we easily fail to convey them. For a long time, the British negotiators presented a confusing front, with a lack of clarity about British interests, indeed ‘clarity’ was a word frequently used by Michel Barnier, the European Commission's French Head of Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom.

Then, right at the end of the process, David Frost firmly anchored all British efforts around the theme of sovereignty - which he identified as the UK’s core interest and message for every negotiator on the British team.  The message clearly got through, as Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission President, made sovereignty a major point in her immediate post-deal speech, though she implied a definition of sovereignty which reflected EU values of partnership between nation states rather than the British team’s definition, which pertained to the single nation state.


Anglo-Saxon pragmatism

When it comes to understanding the interests of each side in the Brexit negotiations, it is possible to see a strong philosophical and cultural divide between Anglo-Saxon pragmatism and French logic. Ursula von der Leyen, when asked by Deutsche Welle what she would miss most about the UK, said: 'I'll miss their pragmatism. It helped a lot. They were always very down-to-earth'. British officials have always been highly regarded in the EU for their pragmatic approach and their ability to act as a voice of reason in tensions between France and Germany.

In negotiation style, the French and British are worlds apart.

One could also view the final deal over fish, where the UK significantly rolled back its original demands, as a sign of pragmatism based on an understanding that it needed to compromise in order to open up things in other areas, such as imports of car parts from Japan, and the level playing field.

Pragmatism may be seen more generally in a British willingness to circumvent and change rules which appear too rigid in changing circumstances. However, when pushed beyond a certain point, for example into ‘opt-outs’ and ‘cherry-picking,’ it was sometimes a source of irritation to other EU protagonists.

From the point of view of negotiation, I believe the initial fault-line in the Brexit negotiations was between this Anglo-Saxon pragmatism and French Cartesian logic. French schoolchildren are taught to construct essays in a style based on Descartes’ Discourse on Method, with a structure of: 1. Premise 2. Analysis 3. Synthesis. 

In negotiation style, the French and British are worlds apart. In an article in the Spectator by Robert Tombs, a Cambridge professor specialising in French history, he described the earlier Brexit negotiations as a ‘dialogue of the deaf’. For the French – in Tombs’ words – ‘negotiation is about adopting a logically coherent set of principles and defending them rigidly’, where for the British it tends to be an experimental process to discover a mutually acceptable deal. I remember a French participant on one of my workshops exclaiming: ‘Well, it may work in practice… but does it work in theory?’

Cartesian logic is constructed on a premise which is ‘indubitably true’. Where the British probably joined the Common Market largely for pragmatic reasons of trading, the founding principle of the EU was the premise of ever closer union, an underlying aim which may not have been as ‘indubitably true’ for the British, who imagined that adjustments, compromises, and opt-outs could be dealt with along the way.

Generalisations and profiling can be a useful ‘game theory’ guide to predicting the probability of interests and outcomes and framing one’s approach accordingly, while remembering the limitations of probability and the dangers of stereotyping.

Professor Ursula Ott from Nottingham Trent University has carried out hundreds of experiments showing clear variations in how different cultural types behave predictably regarding price and time in negotiation. Understanding where all parties are coming from, as in Twelve Angry Men, can give you a predictive advantage.

The importance of language

A central principle of negotiation is the need to have a Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) – a walk-away point. The stronger your BATNA, the stronger your position at the negotiation table.

It was apparently only in the very last call between UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and von der Leyen when the penny finally dropped that the British really were prepared to walk away.

Interestingly, Johnson used German - von der Leyen’s first language - to get the message across. Von der Leyen had been using the term ‘Hammer’ (the same in both languages) to visualise the punishment for Britain for breaking level playing field rules.

Johnson replied ‘Hummer (lobster) nicht Hammer!’, prioritising national sovereignty over the level playing field and, no doubt, with a sly reference to his well-known characterisation of the EU as a ‘lobster’ when asked to compare it to an animal back in 2014.

Three tips for negotiating across cultures

So, to summarise, when it comes to culture in negotiations or even when the cultural dynamics are not so prevalent, I would strongly urge the following:

  • Firstly, examine your own premises, interests, and style of argumentation and decision-making more thoroughly. For instance, in the context of the EU negotiation, the UK side may have assumed their own pragmatic approach and expectation of adjustment and compromises later was simply ‘normal’ and how things are done. We may not even be aware of our own approach and how strange it may appear to others. We need to try and enter the mental world of the other party, and ‘think their thoughts.’
  • Secondly, frame arguments in ways that are familiar to the other party. So, if trying to convince someone with a very logical outlook, use logical ways of putting forward points of view. Or, if required - even use the power of language as Johnson did with von der Leyen. A recent study by Maxim Sytch and Yong H. Kim found that lawyers who mirrored the language of judges in vocabulary, style, and tone had double the chance of winning their case.
  • Finally, and above all, listen and try to understand your negotiation counterparts and then ask the question ‘why?’ to dig out the real interests of the other party.  It’s only then that negotiations can move forward from a ‘dialogue of the deaf’ to a deal that can benefit all parties.


The article is adapted from a chapter contributed by Michael Gates to a forthcoming book by barrister at law Sally Penni M.B.E.