Art of the deal in diplomacy is not to walk from the table

by David Hannay | 06.04.2019

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

Sitting through seven hours of shameless filibustering in the House of Lords last Thursday, as a gang of ultra-Brexiter Conservatives did their best to wreck the Cooper-Letwin Bill designed to mandate the prime minister to extend the Article 50 negotiating period, was painful enough. But the endless assertions that passing the Bill through all its stages in one day – as was eventually agreed to be done on Monday – would bring British democracy to its knees, open the door to dictatorship, ruin the reputation of the House of Lords and much else of that kind, was a mild soporific.

And then I heard one of the gang, who shall remain nameless as he is one of the dimmer bulbs in the pro-Brexit firmament, beginning to lecture on how it was impossible to negotiate successfully unless you were prepared to, and actually did, walk away from the negotiating table. As a business man he could tell us that refusal to do that had doomed the prime minister’s Article 50 negotiations from the outset. Apart from hair colour and accent, it could have been Donald Trump lecturing on “The Art of the Deal”.

Having myself spent much of the past fifty-five years in international negotiations, not all of which have been complete failures – the UK budget rebate, the establishment of the single market, designing Britain’s euro opt-out, the UN authorisation of the use of force to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 – I thought I would test the speaker’s thesis against actual experience.

Take Cyprus, a problem to the solution of which I devoted seven, ultimately fruitless, years. Each side of the dispute, both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, has frequently walked away from the negotiating table, indeed they spent more time doing that than they did in negotiation. But it produced no results, leaving the island divided, insecure and less prosperous than it would otherwise have been.


Take also the Israelis and the Palestinians. They too, particularly the Israelis, have walked away from the negotiating table on a number of occasions. That dispute also remains, if anything, further from resolution than it has ever been.

And then take the negotiations to establish the UN, NATO and the European Communities. Would they have been as successful at laying the foundations of international peace, security and prosperity if any of the participants had threatened to walk away if they did not get everything they wanted? Of course not.

The real lessons are that neither empty chairs nor the drawing of red lines and refusing to compromise on them has proved to be a recipe for success in international negotiations between states, however successful those tactics may have proved in reaching business deals. So the prime minister is surely right now, at last, to have turned her back on such foolish advice.

The trouble is that too many of her supporters remain wedded to that sort of thinking, and her own lack of imagination and flexibility are preventing her from successfully setting a new course in shaping our future relationship with the EU 27.

Rejecting leaving the EU without a deal is the wise thing to do. But it does not bring us closer to a viable solution, just a bit further away from a deeply damaging one.

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6 Responses to “Art of the deal in diplomacy is not to walk from the table”

  • This entire sorry business has, at least, sorted out the intelligent from the dim. Leavers, are, on the whole, less well equipped with brain cells than remainers as can be seen by making a list of leave’s more visible proponents and regarding the likes of the Sun and the Mail stirring up as much social disorder as possible within the law. (N.b., did you know that, pre-war, the Mail wanted us to ally ourselves with Hitler ?). Add to that the way in which leavers defend their position with vituperation and threats. Anything which is contrary to their way of thinking is “undemocratic” completely ignoring the fact that democracy is , at least, about being able to have the freedom to a) disagree and b) change your mind in the light of new information.

    Yes, we had a referendum which was flawed from the start. Had it been otherwise I, and many other remainers, would grudgingly accept it. But now we know how criminal the leave campaign was plus the fact that foreign interests involved themselves in swaying public opinion via social media, encouraging the belief in the various fantasies advanced by the leave campaign. One could go on and on.

  • It was quite interesting to hear the government’s education minister Nadhim Zahawi told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

    “I think it’s important that parliament acts quickly now to decide what it is in favour of. We need to do that quickly because I think going into the EU elections for the Conservative party, or indeed for the Labour party, and telling our constituents why we haven’t been able to deliver Brexit I think would be an existential threat.” ( to the Tory Party).

    What he and other Brexiters don’t like to admit (but more likely don’t even realise) is that the Tory Party after the Brexit debacle is finished anyway.

    The quickest way to eliminate it from existence and discard it to the history books would be to crash out without a deal.

  • Trump in Hanoi comes to mind as well.
    I have noticed through the Brexit years how various gems from some trove of wisdom (Art of the deal?) have been used to defend the government’s negotiation approach ‘No running commentary’, the madman (No deal) approach etc. Always with a know-it-all attitude.

  • The language of violence comes from the Leave side. All their ‘arguments’ for leaving are negative, based on assertions that the EU tells the U.K. what to do etc. If you have nothing positive to say and you are losing the overall argument you revert to threats and insults. These are disseminated by the pro Brexit papers, especially the Mail and Express. I stand next to the paper sales point in a large Tesco store and four out of five people buy the Mail.
    The violent language comes from Farage, Francois etc. I have witnessed Cash and Redwood screaming in temper in interviews on Channel 4 news. Krishnan cut Redwood off last night when he claimed that the polls showed that a majority wanted a no deal Brexit. He was shouting and going red in the face and would not retract this lie when challenged. Krishnan pulled the plug, good for him. Listen also to phone ins on Five Live with Nicky Campbell and Stephen Nolan. The bloke who told Campbell we should stick two fingers up to the EU (not challenged but repeated four times as it was deemed amusing) and the guy who emailed and said if we thought the Irish troubles were bad, they would be like a picnic compared to the violence if there was a second referendum. The guy who told Nolan that all Northern Irish people wanted to be part of the ‘union’. To be fair, Nolan, an Ulsterman. expressed his shock at this outrageous and incorrect claim. But these loaded and prejudiced views are broadcast every day on the BBC. They are the views of the ignorant but if you state this, you are shouted down and called a snob. I truly dislike the way this country has nose dived to the basement in the interests of ‘democracy’. The media has much to answer for. What are these Brexit idiots doing to us? Everyday I am consumed by the stupidity of it all. There is no sense to it and it is going to ruin the country. We have to keep fighting it.

  • I don’t agree with the author.

    The EU have been walking away from the table for 3 years (culminating in “this is the only deal available and it’s not negotiable”). All talks have been on their terms; it’s their bat, their ball and very much their table. As a strategy, its been very effective.

    The EU “art of the deal of diplomacy” has been to “own the talks”, demand the earth, cede nothing, and to wait for the UK to capitulate knowing full well that we will for domestic political reasons.

    When you rule out the option of “no deal”, as we now have, we have effectively surrendered. Over the course of the last 3 years, and for no good reason, we have repeatedly (& willingly) thrown away our bargaining chips. Walking away from the table is now the only chip left.

    The EU negotiation strategy nearly backfired. When parliament wrestled control this could easily have caused an accidental “no deal”, something completely against the EU interests (very self evident now, given EU’s change of rhetoric/willingness to extend the clock).

    The UK holds a position of strength, even now. We always have done.

    However… from the outset, weak UK leadership have demonstrated complete failure in every conceivable way. It’s been like watching a Faulty Towers episode. Complete incompetence has been compounded by a UK governance system that is clearly not fit for purpose.

    A customs union is now looking possible. We are, however, rudderless, clueless, and the Government (and/or opposition) will surely repeat exactly the same failures and negotiate a completely one-sided customs deal/future relationship.

    I’m a Brexiteer but it is with regret that I now believe our only chance of a positive UK outcome is to withdraw Article 50.