Regardless of your views on Brexit, one cannot escape the reality that the negotiations so far have been wrought with difficulty. Recently, on Radio 4’s PM programme I was asked, “If Brexit really is a divorce and a messy one at that would a mediator help?” With over 20 years of experience in extremely difficult and complex commercial, corporate and family conversations, I welcomed the opportunity to get the ball rolling on bringing an external mediator to the negotiating table.
What are the problems with the current approach?
The direct style we are currently witnessing is recycled from 19th Century negotiations, characterised by grandiose, ceremonious and adversarial engagements and not at all fit for purpose; why not upgrade our processes in political negotiation?
There are real opportunities being lost by the approach the UK government and European Commission are taking to this highly sensitive and complex constitutional negotiation. It is fair to say that our politicians are employing a ‘horse drawn carriage’ equivalent to negotiation communication rather than the turbo-charged process that can be derived from a focused mediation team.
My negotiation and mediation experience tells me that the current negotiation methodology is inefficient and unproductive. It is too fragmented, too open to constant surveillance and critique by the public and media and too lacking in intense determination and momentum. The current ‘committee meeting’ approach is likely to leave the parties, near the end of the negotiation period, scrambling to secure final details and public approval. The result – a rushed deal to try and demonstrate success but probably littered with holes and devoid of widespread support.
So, what can a mediation team bring to the table?
As with all negotiations, especially ones as politically charged as Brexit, both the UK and Europe must advance and protect their own interests. A third party mediator can come to the table, look at both parties’ interests and better establish and maintain constructive dialogue. At the very least this will provide a suitable platform for the discussions to take place. Furthermore, a mediator would help with saving face. With both Brexit negotiators reporting to demanding and often uncompromising groups, the mediator can aid with saving face. He or she would utilise the confidential nature of the process and the option to engage with parties in both joint and private sessions, to tailor how certain sensitive information or messages are framed, communicated, received, worked on and publicised. By having a complete view of the negotiations without a personal agenda, the mediator can determine and hone in on the underlying issues and real priorities of each party and facilitate exploration of what kind of outcome will be either mutually acceptable or the closest to this that one can get.
People constantly underestimate how much is brought to a negotiation process by having someone whose sole interest is finding a resolution that meets everyone’s ultimate long term interests – compared to the negotiators who must be mindful all the time of their own interests and the stakeholders pulling the strings.
Advice to Brexit Lead Negotiators
Faced with a room of both negotiation teams, headed by David Davis and Michel Barnier, I would pose two questions and one recommendation to assist with the process.
What do you think you have to lose by bringing a mediator to the table, tasked with assisting all parties in delivering a constructive negotiation process?
The mediation team could undoubtedly be strengthened by adding, for credibility and trust, a global statesman or diplomat accustomed to complex treaty negotiations and neutral to the political situation. Thus, could you agree a shortlist of individuals who meet this criterion? This would in itself get early momentum for agreement.
My recommendation would be to adopt a ‘deep dive’ approach. This would involve taking both teams away for an intensive period of time to a retreated location with a mandate to achieve the best skeleton framework possible for their respective constituencies.
This interim result would then be considered as a whole by the media, politicians, experts and the populace alike after which, resulting feedback can be carried forward to a second round of refinement. A mediation team would, and is best placed, to ensure the discipline, quality of communication and focus needed to achieve this.
It is likely the current teams will respond to this with affirmations of supreme negotiation competency – “we don’t need a mediator”. I seriously doubt whether this is true. We watch world class teams, spanning all sports, perform week in week out with never a second thought to them receiving individual skills and strategy coaching. Therefore, why quibble over experienced mediators lending a helping hand to one of the most complex and critical negotiations Europe and the UK have perhaps ever faced?