Unless you have checked out of the Brexit saga a long time ago you will see plenty of gloomy headlines. No-Deal is in sight. Again. Of course. 600 pages have been agreed. Three big ticket items remain: fisheries, the so-called level playing field for business and governance of the final deal. The last of the three is interesting not only because it is the ultimate safeguard enforcing a trade agreement but also because serious disputes are already anticipated down the road. Brexit has been a renegotiation marathon. With the UK introducing (and then again halting) legislation that undermines January’s Withdrawal Agreement, it is no wonder the fine legal detail of how future disputes are managed and by whom is a big concern for Brussels.
Meanwhile, chief negotiators Barnier and Frost step up the pressure and prepare for the blame game that is around the corner. To ensure that at home everyone knows it is the other side that is at fault for the epic failure to come (for the UK alone, no-deal cost estimates vary between two and three times the economic cost of COVID-19). Barnier and Commission President Von Der Leyen may want to compromise on some parts but they have 27 mothers-in-law looking over their shoulder. A few of these will not be unhappy with no-deal. Frost and Boris Johnson have a House full of mothers-in-law, of which a fringe group within a fringe group successfully pushes the hardest possible exit (if having the cake and also eating it is off the menu).
Threading the Webex needle
This is by no means surprising and we have seen it all before in the triple renegotiation of the divorce act (the Withdrawal Agreement) last year. What is far more interesting is how negotiators are faring at the level just below Barnier and Frost: the few dozen civil servants on both sides who have worked day and night to hammer out a deal. They did so under tremendous time pressure. Trade agreements normally take years to craft (and then years to ratify). They now had 11 months and had to work remotely most of the time. If you feel frustrated about your own work from home from time to time, try to imagine negotiating 600 pages of legal text and technical annexes through a Webex videoconference. Then imagine coordinating the input for that text with European Commission DGs, dozen of European agencies, 27 Member States and the European Parliament. On the UK side, try to imagine not having done any of this work for about 47 years and being asked to catch up in a few months working from the bedroom of your 6-year-old, or the kitchen, or perhaps the office one day a week…
In the final stretch leaders will always communicate crisis; but what determines the fate of a deal is determined in large part by how closely top civil servants collaborate to thread the needle and help write one another's victory speeches.
Why can virtual negotiation be so challenging? Are there not plenty of advantages that balance the downsides? If doctors in Los Angeles and Berlin can jointly perform complicated surgery why would Brexit by videoconference be so difficult? Recent research into the difference between face-to-face and virtual negotiation concludes that many of the perceived disadvantages do not manifest themselves. Except one and it is no small item. Trust. Negotiators in virtual settings trust one another significantly less before and during the negotiation. Because the degree of trust between negotiators determines how much information they share and how willing they are to engage in collaborative problem solving this is a very big deal. And it is a big deal especially in the final stretch of Brexit. Political leaders and chief negotiators communicate to their constituencies. To some degree, framing the talks to the public as a grand fight is part of their job description. But negotiators at working level communicate with each other. As former trades spokesman Peter Guilford put it recently, when the going gets tough it is bureaucrats who come up with innovative formulas. Think transition periods, new technical committees, legal wordsmithing and joint declarations that emphasize the pluses and do just enough face-saving on the ugly parts.
So one question playing in the background is that of trust levels between the negotiation teams. Have they gone native to the public narratives of the other side being hopelessly unprepared and unpredictable (UK) or terribly inflexible and spiteful (EU). Or is there, in parallel to the public theatre and despite the challenges of virtual negotiations, enough trust, empathy and mutual respect? If it is largely the former, forget about a fix for this in the final hours of Brexit talks and we may be heading for the cliff edge. If it is the latter, the groundwork for that was put in place well before the summer and its benefits can be reaped right now to get a deal over the line.
Of course there are tons of ways to invest in relationships virtually. I personally find a joint playlist a very charming tool. It is light and energizing, time-friendly and it works in both formal and informal settings alike. It is as simple as this: over the course of many virtual negotiation sessions you establish a Spotify routine. Every meeting one side adds a song to a joint playlist. The song is played as colleagues from both sides access the virtual meeting space, readying themselves for another round. Once the song is done, the chair of one party thanks the other side for their contribution to the list. The next meeting, the tables are turned and the other side contributes a new song. Of course, jabs are allowed. So Lose Lose Situation by Brian McFadden is fair game. And so is London Calling by The Clash. The point is really Bob Marley’s: the one good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.
Think of all the hours not spent in planes and trains. Put a fraction of that into human-to-human connection.
If in spring the negotiation teams have indeed kicked this off, we now have a pretty impressive Brexit playlist floating somewhere in the cloud. That is true value created. But of real importance, that is the glue that makes creative ambiguity, legal craftmanship and last-minute face-saving joint declarations possible. The final stretch, the toughest 2% of the deal, is about joint partnership at the table, on the screen or on the phone. You either trust them despite your strong views of their political leadership, or you secretly (or not so secretly) hope for them to crash and burn in a no-deal ball of fire.
Spotify, of course, is just one avenue. Once you get creative, there are no limits to working on better relationships through virtual means. What is required? 1: Awareness of the fundamental importance of relations at the level of civil servants. 2: Acceptance that virtually you are 1-0 behind from the get-go. 3: A determination to make-up for it as the game is being played and to start on day 1. Think of all the hours not spent in planes and trains. Put a fraction of that into human-to-human connection and it will pay itself back big time once the going gets really tough, right near the end, when both precipice and finish line are in sight. Did they make that joint playlist in London and Brussels? I do not know.