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When the history of Brexit comes to be written, the one word (other than “Brexit”) that will appear more than any other will be “negotiation”. For the past three and half years, the UK has been engaged in a protracted negotiation with the European Union, as it has sought to extricate itself from 45 years of collaboration. It has been a painful, and painfully slow, process.
But that, in a sense, is what negotiation is all about.
The word stems from a conjunction of two Latin words—“neg” or “not” and “otium” or “leisure”. But if the pace has been leisurely, nothing else about the process has signified ease or pleasant restfulness. Late last night, after a punishing few days, David Frost, the prime minister’s key advisor on Europe, tweeted: “Good to be back in the UK again after a week’s hard negotiating in Brussels to agree a new Brexit deal.”
He was, of course, involved in what were dubbed the “technical negotiations”—the haggling over the fine details and the right words to frame or fudge (depending on your viewpoint) an agreement. But before they began, there had been another negotiation that paved the way for these technical negotiations: the one between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach.
In the rural setting of a country mansion once owned by Lord Leverhulme, the industrialist and philanthropist, the two men got down to the difficult task of sorting out Brexit. After all the posturing, after all the rhetoric, they realised that they could no longer delegate the tricky business of negotiation. It was up to them. It was time to dispense with their advisers, take a stroll in the manicured gardens, look each other in the eye, and see their way to an agreement.
And it worked. In years to come, that single negotiation between the two men will be seen as the turning point.
It lifted the mood, and it was a heartening moment not only because the two men worked out a way to break the Brexit deadlock. In a world increasingly dominated by technology, and the rising prominence of artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics, it was oddly comforting to see that the raw, human discipline of negotiation had managed to keep its place.
It is not just in the political sphere that the ancient art of negotiation is enjoying something of a revival. In the corporate sphere too, negotiation is, to coin a phrase, back in business. Everywhere, big companies are investing in A.I.—but this isn’t “A” for “Artificial”. It’s “A” for “Augmented”. CEOs are realizing that they need to invest in the new technology to support—not to substitute—the decision-making of their people. As a result, headhunters are being commissioned to find C-suite executives with core negotiating skills such as judgment, empathy, intuition: all the things that robots can’t yet do.
Stripped back to its essence, business is a negotiation between buyers and sellers—one that has continued since the earliest traders emerged in the first bazaars. And like all negotiations, it is a trial of strength. It’s about the balance of power. Who’s weak? Who’s strong? Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s winning? Who’s not?
But negotiation is also about smart thinking. As Igor Ryzoz, a business coach, observes in his fascinating, if ominously titled, book The Kremlin School of Negotiation (Canongate, 2019) that draws on Machiavelli’s The Prince: “Like a ruler, a negotiator should take on the traits of the lion as well as the fox”. Boris Johnson has certainly been a “lion”, playing hardball with his insistence on the potential to take the UK out of the EU with a no deal, if necessary. He has also been the “fox”, smiling for the cameras, showing a willingness to compromise, and using his particular brand of humour, which has perhaps been his trump card. As Ryzoz notes, even in the self-confessed “brutal” Kremlin School, there’s a place for humour. It is, he says, “a most powerful weapon”, adding that “an audience-appropriate, clear, unambiguous joke will immediately deflate any tensions”.
The very human impulse that drives any negotiation partly explains why the Brexit negotiations have become such compelling TV. Who’d have thought that BBC Parliament channel would be attracting record numbers of viewers? Of course, Brexit is no entertainment. The country’s future, and people’s livelihoods, hang in the balance. But what’s compelling is that these mighty outcomes rest on the shoulders of a handful of people who shut the door to the outside world and start to negotiate.
It was always thus. Exactly one hundred years ago, three men locked themselves in hotel room in Paris and decided the fate of millions of people. Over the course of six months, Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. president, Lloyd George, the British prime minister, and Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister, debated, argued, laughed, brooded, sometimes went off in a huff (but always came back), and even dispensed with their advisers, just as Johnson and Varadkar had dispensed with theirs. They knew there was no getting away from the fact that the future of Europe, and indeed the world, was up to them. And they finally reached an agreement that was written into the Treaty of Versailles.
We’ll know soon enough if the new deal that Boris Johnson secured yesterday will get the support of the House of Commons. But whether or not his deal does get parliamentary approval, we can be sure of one thing: there will be plenty of opportunity for more displays of fine negotiating skills.
As Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Commission’s president-in-waiting, told reporters with a Churchillian flourish when news of the Johnson deal trickled out: “Brexit isn’t the end of something. Brexit is the beginning”. Next up is the future trade agreement.
Anyone who thinks that the negotiating is over has got another thing coming…