As 2020 comes to an end and the infernal eternal Brexit negotiations also come to an end, what can we learn from them about negotiations? They have dominated our news for the last four years, there must be lots to pick over (just like the traditional Boxing Day turkey carcass).
The most important question is were they successful, did the two parties achieve their goals? And in answering this, there are two big caveats. The first: it depends on the goals.
Did Boris achieve his political goals?
Politically, it certainly seems to be successful for Boris Johnson, who can now claim he delivered on getting Brexit done. And, tactically speaking, he can also claim it was their tough unyielding approach, their willingness to go to the wire, that delivered. And, conversely, that it his was last minute interventions with Ursula von der Leyen that got it over the line. These will probably improve his standing amongst the British electorate.
Did the UK achieve its non-political goals?
From a trade and economic perspective, however, it is hard to see how it was a success for Britain. There may not be any tariffs and quotas but there will be lots of new paperwork and checks at the borders to slow down trade with the E.U.
And the financial services, a large part of the British economy, have been hung out to dry. These are still to be discussed but the UK no longer have any bargaining powers, it seems ‘nothing is agreed until it’s all agreed’ didn’t actually apply in this instance. Now the E.U. can pick and choose how they want to deal with the financial services, without fear of any reprisals in a complementary sector.
As the Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said, it is the first trade deal in history that has made trade more difficult.
Likewise, did it achieve the stated goals of increased sovereignty for Britain? Again, hard to see how. The customs borders are now between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and between Great Britain and Gibraltar, those borders governed by E.U. agents, and these territories will remain subject to EU single market and customs union rules and overseen by the European Court of Justice. A marked reduction in sovereignty.
And the greater restrictions on ease of travel, residency, ability to work, ability to study and recognition of qualifications also seem to be a distinct reduction in freedoms for the British people; again, counter to the stated goals of the British negotiation team.
And how did the E.U. fare?
Well, their goals were primarily to discourage other countries from taking the same route whilst minimising the economic impact to themselves. They were probably successful in this although they would have much preferred a deal closer to the existing arrangement. For them, it is more a sigh of relief than a shout for joy – the least bad option.
Did the tough game work?
Both sides played tough tactics. Who started it? Both of them did.
Michel Barnier revelled in his ‘Ils ne passeront pas’ style and felt fully supported in this by his president, Emmanuel Macron, who has an election coming up very soon. David Frost lived up to his surname and there was a very cold relationship between the two negotiators – Barnier must have missed the good old days with his friend David Davis.
And yet, for all of both sides’ posturing – the bluster and threats and not budging then, oh look, a last minute deal – little extra was gained that wasn’t on offer much earlier.
Let’s take one of the main sticking points, the role of the European Court of Justice in the dispute resolution procedure. The final agreement involves a tribunal made of an equal number of experts from the UK, from the EU and from independent neutral territories. This was so obviously going to be the outcome from the very beginning that a half-asleep five year old could have suggested it the day the referendum result was announced.
And yet it was exactly these “we’re not going to budge” posturings that meant there was no time to come to agreement on the financial services, data, security and other very important issues.
The second caveat?
When evaluating if the negotiations were successful, the second caveat is that, as Zhou En-Lai purportedly said of the French Revolution, it is too early to tell.
Any Brexiteer reading up to this point will probably be bursting to tell me that this deal is the first play of a bigger game. The benefits, they will argue, from the new trade deals Britain can now strike with other countries will outweigh any losses from Europe.
Are they correct? No-one knows; we shall see.
In fact, we don’t even know the full outcome of this deal yet. The negotiation hasn’t actually finished. There are still many sectors like the financial services that still have to be agreed.
But also, critically, any variance from the existing arrangement (on either side) is likely to trigger the dispute tribunal who have the powers to impose tariffs and quotas as they see fit. This is both a fair and normal mechanism but it means that the arrangement we see now might be unrecognisable from the one that is operating in, say, five years’ time.
With negotiations, it is what happens in the real world that counts, not the piece of paper with the signatures.
So, to answer the question in the title, we don’t know. It depends on your frame and it depends on how things actually play out.
And this, of course, gives the spin doctors on both sides huge amounts of room to claim victory, irrespective of any annoying facts that might get in the way.
Expect chest-thumping and declarations of triumph from everyone.
Just don’t believe them.
PS. Other snippets from the negotiations
Another limiting factor in answering the question is that I wasn’t in the negotiation room at the time and I’m guessing neither were my readers so we are dependent on second-, third- or fourth-hand reports of what went on.
In weeks to come, there will be a flood of articles, books and documentaries on the negotiation with many interesting insights to the process. Here are a few that have come out already:
…The UK’s threats to break last year’s agreement predictably back-fired and led to the E.U. hardening their stance. Whist the dispute mechanism agreed is normal and fair, the specifics of the clause are much stricter than in other EU trade deals and this became a key demand on the European side because of their lack of trust in who they were negotiating with.
…In the many Zoom meetings that took place during lockdowns, one negotiator had an interesting backdrop. On the table behind her, there were a beautiful bunch of lilies on one side and a murderous set of kitchen knives on other!
…David Frost’s approach was to repeat the British position to the point of infuriation. “Make what you want seem normal” was one of the instructions he gave to his team. “People get used to ideas” he’d written in an earlier document.
…Separation of roles: Both Barnier and Frost were given the remit of attack dog whilst Johnson and von der Leyen were there to smooth things over, accompanied by good food and fine wine, when needed.
…Keeping a unified team: the E.U.’s strength was their size but diversity their Achilles’ heel. Note that Johnson was rarely allowed, and not at all in the closing stages, to talk to Macron and Merkel individually lest he was able to forge a split between them.
…Deferring the impact: Macron has a presidential election soon and annoying the French fishermen would not have helped his cause. His solution was therefore a phased deal so there would be minimal impact until after the election.
…When the new strain of corona virus appeared in the UK, France closed the border between the two countries (causing many other countries to follow suit). It only lasted two days but it resulted in huge traffic jams in Kent and panic buying in the supermarkets. France’s action had absolutely nothing to do with the Brexit negotiations and were not in any way meant as a threat regarding what would happen with the looming possibility of a no-deal outcome. Apparently.