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#7 Balance Your Secrecy With Their Transparency

To serve a successful outcome, how secretive should negotiations be?

Obviously, there is no one size fits all answer to this. Peace negotiations nearly always involve a phase of total secrecy, sometimes all the way up to signing an agreement. Virtually all other negotiations are public to the extent that they are known to take place. How much or little information is disclosed on process and substance depends in large part on the degree to which leaders feel they can disclose information without inviting a barrage of unhelpful attacks at the home front. The key aspect to be aware of in this dilemma is that no one party can have full control over information. Unless you have watertight arrangements with your counterpart never to say anything outside the negotiation room, the usefulness of your secrecy is inversely related to the other party’s transparency. And if the other side is reasonably transparent as to what goes on (or are prone to leaking), not only does secrecy quickly become a liability, it also means loosing control over the framing of negotiations towards the home front.

In Brexit negotiations, until the famous Chequers meeting (2018), Theresa May held her cards very close to her chest for over two years. But there was little consideration for the set-up of negotiations on the other side. The inter-institutional set-up of EU Commission, Member States and European Parliament meant a briefing bonanza in Brussels. Whatever was not disclosed in London on the UK’s positioning was indirectly disclosed in Brussels. One reason, perhaps, why the UK side had to endure sustained attacks on its alleged lack of preparation may be that it was never in control of messaging around its preparation and objectives for the talks.


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