Programme Director of the Oxford Programme on Negotiation Paul Fisher assesses how the UK and EU reached a deal on post-Brexit trade.
The mood music at the joint press conference to announce the Windsor Framework was in marked contrast to the previous history of strained relationships between the UK Government and European Union.
The warmth in the relationship between British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was clear for all to see. ‘A new chapter’, ‘a lot of goodwill’, ‘shoulder to shoulder’ were just some of the terms emanating from Windsor’s Guildhall.
Leaving aside the details of the agreement which clearly reduces the burden on Northern Irish businesses and the impact of the trade border in the Irish sea created by the 2020 Withdrawal Agreement, what is clear is that all strong negotiations and positive outcomes are determined by relationships.
Relationships, an understanding of where your counterpart is coming from, and a focus on practical outcomes are critically important. Ms von der Leyen put it well when she said at the press conference: ‘there was a very constructive attitude from the very beginning to solve problems to find solutions, practical solutions for everyday life.’
Yet, how can such relationships be developed?
Here are three suggestions around what to do and what not to do:
Be honest about the challenges faced.
We all remember the ‘Get Brexit Done’ mantra of former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the promise that there would never be a border in the Irish Sea. Of course, this was clearly not the case with it only being a matter of time before the inherent contradictions and defects of the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Irish protocol would come to the fore. Strong negotiators need to be realistic about the challenges from the outset rather than kicking the can down the road. Sunak and Johnson’s negotiation approaches here couldn’t have been more different.
Avoid political grandstanding and taking the easy option.
It’s all too easy in a negotiation to appeal to one’s domestic audience or take the easy option at the expense of relationships at the table and to avoid tough negotiations. This was the case with the previous government’s Northern Ireland Protocol bill which would enable the UK to unilaterally withdrawal from key parts of the Treaty. Such a move only fostered distrust and a possible future trade war. To his credit, Rishi Sunak has made such a last and desperate resort redundant through getting his head down, being willing to compromise and focusing on the issues at hand rather than getting cheap headlines and avoiding the tough issues.
Keep people close to the table but not too close.
In many negotiations, there are key stakeholders away from the table who can determine the success or failure of a deal – in this case the political parties in Northern Ireland and groups such as the Conservative Party's European Research Group (ERG). Bring them directly into the negotiations from the outset or feed them regular updates, however, and you risk potential roadblocks, leaks and intransigence. In this case, Rishi Sunak brought in vital stakeholders, such as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who will determine whether the Northern Ireland Assembly is restored again, only as the framework of a deal neared. At the time of writing, the DUP is still to decide whether they can support the Windsor framework but the approach adopted by Sunak ensures a much better chance of success.
Of course there are other key reasons for the success of the deal (and Sunak has an important few days ahead of him in selling it) and potentially a vastly improved relationship with Brussels. Both parties’ inquisitive approaches, their attention to the all-important details and the atmosphere of collaboration and good manners created the environment for a sound agreement. And of course overriding this is the most important goal for all parties – peace on the island of Ireland so meticulously secured 25 years ago this April.
The last few years have not seen the UK government cover itself in glory when it comes to negotiating with the EU. Credit where it’s due this time.