Expert View

A massive majority is irrelevant in an away game

by Roderick Abbott | 26.05.2017

Roderick Abbott was a senior trade negotiator for the European Commission, and deputy director-general at the WTO.

Theresa May says that a resounding election victory will reinforce her Brexit mandate to make the “best possible deal” for the country.  Yet the record of international negotiations over the years suggests that a massive majority is largely irrelevant to the end result.

The strength of political support at home and the soundness of your domestic economy are factors on the periphery when you are “playing away”.  This is even more true in the detailed area of trade and investment arrangements, where access to the other market by definition matters more than access to the domestic one.

May wants to have “a deep and special partnership” with the EU. The EU emphasises “close co-operation”. What is required is the unravelling and resetting of a host of existing agreements between the two sides: from citizens’ rights, including reciprocal residence rights and access to healthcare, to the exchange of university students, the setting of new conditions for scientific research by academic bodies, and mutual recognition of professional qualifications, to name but a few.

The problem is that once outside the EU, no longer legally tied to compliance with single market regulations, nothing can be taken for granted. Continuity of treatment will no doubt be high on the list of UK arguments, but for British companies selling goods and services to the EU it will not be automatic. Arrangements based on reciprocity have a different calculus when discussed between EU members, as opposed to being negotiated with non-members.

Much will depend on politics in the end game – whether both sides are prepared to make compromises to secure a good deal or whether insistence on political red lines is absolute.

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    In the trade and investment area, domestic political support and a sound economy are of secondary importance. Down at the nitty-gritty level, in the detail of regulations that determine origin of goods that may have more than one source, or the particular qualifications that allow professionals to practise in medicine or law or accountancy, the general context is no more than a background factor.  A sound economy does not allow you to sell financial services.

    Similarly, when it comes to negotiating a trade deal with a third country, the qualities that count are a good knowledge of the trade and investment relations with each partner – surplus or deficit, sectors of major importance, supply chain details, and areas where investment matters. In the dynamic of bilateral negotiation, these are the issues that both sides try to identify and use to their advantage. Familiarity with the details in both directions is essential to securing a balanced deal which is also a good deal.  

    It has been obvious that, since the mid-1970s, ever fewer British officials have been engaged in these kinds of negotiation. In addition to basic knowledge it is also an advantage to have personal contacts with the negotiators of other countries, which can only come from direct experience.  This can be exaggerated – experts often advertise themselves. But it is of importance in understanding the tactical positions and reading the rigidity of red lines, which is a matter of intuition as much as judgment. Listening carefully to the views of the other side is a habit that has not been very apparent in the recent exchanges between Brussels and London.

    Edited by Quentin Peel

    Tags: Categories: Brexit Negotiations, Economy