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To this former EU negotiator, the UK's chance of a good Brexit deal looks slim

The EU27 countries were ready to talk. But the UK has made things pointlessly difficult. 

Being "tough" and being "difficult" are not the same thing. Being tough can work, but only if deployed sparingly at strategic points in negotiations. Being difficult for difficult’s sake never works. It simply breaks trust and creates resentment leading to a justifiable unwillingness in partners to compromise. 

Successful negotiation in the EU is not, contrary to popular belief, about thumping the table and demanding you get everything you want for nothing in return. It’s also not about undermining your opposite numbers (oppos in Brussels-speak), or insulting their intelligence by making outlandish claims. Yet, in preparing for Brexit negotiations, the UK government has done all of these things with, it seems, gusto and pride.

Trust is key to a successful negotiation. Both sides must know that the other is negotiating in good faith. Both may know that walking away is an option in extremis, but openly threatening this undermines trust that a solution is being sought. Any compromises or concessions require trust and good faith.

Understanding your oppos is essential. Each has a complex set of constraints and expectations from their own side. Understanding their position allows you to identify solutions that satisfy their concerns and meet your objectives. If you have put yourself in the position that your overall line is fundamentally incompatible with that of your oppos, you have already lost.

An oppos’ issue with one of your lines may be less fundamental than it looks. You should be guiding your oppos towards being able to support, or at least not block, something as close to your preferred outcome as possible. The process is a long, complex one, and actions at any point will not be forgotten later.

Positions should be clearly prioritised, with built-in fallback positions. Everyone wants their priority to be your number one, must be got, can’t be traded priority, but they simply can’t all be. Many will have to be traded, and you should know which can be and for what.

Flexibility must be built into your position from the start. Not everything can be a red line. Oppos respect genuine red lines - they have them too. Claiming that every point is a red line though is crying wolf.

The pre-negotiation phase has been a disaster for the UK. The UK government first tried to divide the EU27, and then, when that didn’t work, set about deliberately breeding resentment and mistrust. The balance of power is such that the EU27 hold almost all the cards, but the government seems in a state of denial about this. Its Cabinet ministers hectored, smeared and threatened the very people they are asking for help and concessions from.

The EU27’s carefully drafted position papers synthesise a multitude of opening positions from 27 governments, the European Parliament, and the Commission. While these papers do not represent a final offer, they equally do not represent a first go at a vague wish list. The UK government knows this. Yet its approach has been to pretend that the EU27’s positions were mere posturing, particularly over the sequencing of negotiations (which the UK caved in on in the first hours of negotiations), citizens’ rights and the Four Freedoms. This was absurd and served to make UK look like it was not a serious negotiator.

Then came the ill-fated “No Deal Better than Bad Deal” rhetoric. This had a disastrous effect on the UK’s credibility, largely because it is demonstrably untrue. Of course the EU27 does not want the UK to walk away with no deal. It would cost them dearly, but they will deal with it if they must. The EU itself and its core principles are more important. Besides, everyone knows that no deal would cost the UK an order of magnitude more than the EU27, so this strategy served only to reduce trust.

The UK government has acted as if the EU27 countries are yet to discover the internet, and don't have access to UK news. The EU27, though, knows the UK has backed itself into a corner on so many issues that its positions are fundamentally incompatible with the positive outcomes it has said it will get. The EU27 knows that this government will now find it politically impossible to go back with a big exit bill, or accept freedom of movement, or European Court of Justice jurisdiction over anything, no matter what it gets in return.

Ruling out these things publicly, instead of explaining and managing expectations at home, shows the UK government is either willing to lie to its people or genuinely ignorant of the realities. This weakens any sympathetic voices for the UK.

Finally, it really helps to have the arguments, facts and moral high ground on your side in negotiations. The UK has showed again and again that it has none of these. The unwillingness to guarantee citizens’ rights was bad, but the threat to bargain over security cooperation was a moment of appalling moral weakness.

The EU27’s leaders very much want a deal, but the government’s approach has made any desire to look for solutions that suit the UK evaporate. Why bother when they don’t appear to want a deal anyway? Why give concessions when the UK's constraints are entirely of its own making?

In my view, the chances of this government getting any deal, let alone a good one, in only 21 months, are minimal. But I think it knows this. The Chancellor Philip Hammond, a lone moderate, pleaded for a transitional deal lasting up to four years. The level of complexity is too much for the UK's Brexit negotiators, their preparations too poor, and the messaging too self-defeating.

I can therefore only conclude that this government’s plan is to walk out of negotiations, which will, of course, be a catastrophe for the UK. And all for want of a little humility, trust, honesty, organisation and understanding. But the government just couldn’t help itself, could it? The negotiators had to be bloody difficult.

Steve Bullock worked at the UK Representation to the EU from 2010-2014 where he negotiated several EU regulations for the UK in EU Council working groups. He has also worked for the European Commission and the Department for International Development’s Europe Department. This article is based on a Twitter thread originally posted here. This was jointly published with The UK in a Changing Europe.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.