Negotiation Mastery Blog

When Do Negotiations End?

Its been a major week for negotiations!

In Brussels, 26 countries took a large step closer to fiscal integration whilst one, Britain, used its nuclear option of vetoing the deal, to potentially massive consequences. And in Durban, many thousands of miles due south, a last minute deal was reached at the climate change conference.

Both talks remarkable for their scale and their complexity. And, make no mistake, both talks remarkable for the momentousness of their possible impact.

But they differed in one way: in the end, the European Union could not reach agreement between the 27 members whilst the 200 represented countries in Durban managed to find a last minute change of wording that allowed everyone to be happy.

One failed, the other succeeded.

What do we mean by success and failure in a negotiation?

Of course, there is the question: what do we mean by failure and success? In terms of reaching agreement, the terms are fairly clear. And as a negotiator, I definitely believe in the importance of successfully coming to agreement. But not at any cost. It is important to stress the maxim “Win-win or no deal”. There is no point in signing an agreement that does not serve your purpose, you are not a charity (unless, of course, you are a charity).

And this is why David Cameron felt he was compelled to say “Non”. I am not absolving him of blame for the breakdown (in fact, the blame needs to be shared amongst all parties at the table and, indeed, several parties not at the table). I am merely trying to draw out a lesson: don’t sign away critical interests for the sake of a peaceful life, only sign up for something that truly is to your benefit. Better, he thought, not commit to anything that he considered harmful to Britain.

And, rest assured, the discussions are not over. Everything is still negotiable. Indeed, the discussions will have to continue, such uncertain and significant territories have we moved into. An astute negotiator could still use this to their advantage; whether Cameron will or not remains to be seen.

Watch this space. Really, watch it with eyes wide open.

When do negotiations end?

On the other hand, take the climate deal. The differences here came down to a few words – the European Union wanted the words “legal outcome” replaced by “legally binding agreement” but China and India, in particular, refused. Instead, they compromised with “agreed outcome with legal force”.

Its value is that it did allow a larger package of policies to be passed. Rather than scupper the whole deal, they fudged the one sticking point, knowing that it can be discussed at length later.

But, call me stupid, I have to admit I’m not sure I fully see the difference between the terms. Maybe its because I haven’t had my second cup of coffee yet. One thing I do know, though, is that lawyers on both sides will spend years to come discussing those differences. Again, nothing is finished yet!

So, actually, in neither negotiation is the game over; with both, everything is still to play for.

Sadly, maybe both have failed?

One similarity between the deals strikes me though. They both seem to be hugely missing the point. Both feature many parties fighting their corner when the real threat is something external, massive and misunderstood.

In Brussels, the immediate danger is the markets and, really, how much do they care about austerity measures to be implemented years in the future? They simply want to know will they get their money back if they lend it out tomorrow, and if they think they wont, they wont lend. And then everything will come falling down and, treaty or no treaty, all these discussions will be irrelevant.

Down south in Durban, the danger is the weather. The agreement reached was to start reducing carbon emissions by 2020 but I’m not sure the weather is going to wait that long.

Maybe everyone should get back to the negotiating table pretty quickly.