On August 3, 1914, the night before the start of World War I, the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, famously remarked, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum, in which 52 percent of Britons voted to leave the European Union, many among the British electorate felt that the lights of economic integration had been extinguished and that dark times lay ahead for the United Kingdom.

The febrile, early post-referendum atmosphere in Westminster was infused with recriminations over the toxic referendum campaign and the divisions within the government. A basic negotiation principle is to have unity on your side, and this was sorely missing—an inauspicious basis for embarking on what will be the most important and complex negotiation in the country’s history.

But amid the tumult, there were some positive signs. A new Conservative leader, Theresa May, emerged from the political chaos and quickly showed the sort of steel that many party members admired in the United Kingdom’s only previous female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. After assuming the prime ministership in July, May dismissed potentially discordant ministers and appointed a finely balanced new cabinet. Although she herself had favored remaining in the EU, she coined the mantra “Brexit means Brexit” and wisely named a former minister of state for Europe and “leave” advocate, David Davis, as secretary of state for exiting the European Union. The new secretary of state for international trade, Liam Fox, is another Brexiteer, as is May’s most controversial appointment: Boris Johnson as foreign secretary.

Commentators from around the world, not to mention the French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, were quick to dismiss this last appointment, quoting some of Johnson’s gaffes, which are the stock-in-trade of this former London mayor and newspaper columnist. But his appointment may prove to be a smart move. Johnson, who successfully led the Brexit campaign, draws a distinction between opposing the hegemony of the Brussels bureaucracy and pursuing broader relations with European countries. “There’s a massive difference between leaving the EU and our relations with Europe,” he has said, “which, if anything, are going to be intensified and built up at an intergovernmental level.” He is a pragmatic politician who is not from the extreme “Euroskeptical” wing of his party and is immensely popular across a wide range of the population. (A May 2016 poll revealed that 52 percent of Londoners approved of his performance as mayor, although a post-referendum poll has shown a decline in his popularity.) May recognizes this and doubtless will be looking to him to engage thoughtfully with foreign leaders and, eventually, to help sell the final Brexit agreement domestically. 

Although turf wars between Fox and Johnson have recently emerged that could threaten the British government’s need to show a united front vis-à-vis Europe, May is a no-nonsense politician who is unlikely to tolerate this internal bickering. It was noteworthy that she showed support for Johnson by leaving him in charge when both she and Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the exchequer, were on vacation. The government has the advantage of an opposition Labour Party locked in an existential fight with its own hapless leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who enjoys negligible support in Parliament. A weak opposition may be bad for democracy, but it could give the Conservative ministers who will be guiding the Brexit negotiators the breathing space to do what is required.

A new Conservative leader, Theresa May, emerged from the political chaos and quickly showed the sort of steel that many party members admired in the United Kingdom’s only previous female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Still, there are a number of arduous tasks that lie ahead. The first challenge will be to find the people with the right skills to bolster the negotiating capacity of the British civil service. Commentators have focused almost entirely on the shortage of trade negotiators, ignoring the scores of non-trade-related issues to be addressed in the transformation of the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe. As the career prospects for British nationals working within the Brussels bureaucracy will surely now be curtailed, the British government should offer attractive incentives to the best of them to come home to negotiate Brexit for the United Kingdom. Whether seasoned trade negotiators or experts on anything from financial regulation to the European Court of Justice to where British fishermen will be allowed to catch herrings, they will have a head start when it comes to knowing the issues and the negotiators on the other side of the table.

It will be difficult for the British negotiators to agree on and prioritize the many issues at stake and those from which the country’s most important goals should emerge. It is therefore good that the government has said that it is in no hurry to trigger Article 50, the provision of the EU’s governing treaty for withdrawal from the union, a step that is required to formally leave the EU. That way, everyone, and especially the negotiators assembling in Whitehall, will have time to prepare and design strategies to achieve the best possible results for as many of the interested parties as possible. 

Although it was reported at the time as an unpalatably harsh stance, the prime minister displayed her acuity as a negotiator by declining to assure European citizens already residing in the United Kingdom that they would be able to stay after the United Kingdom formally leaves the EU. She, unlike her rivals for the Conservative leadership, realized that this is a key negotiating point that should be yielded only in return for an equal or similar concession, possibly on an aspect of the free movement of people within the EU. It is unfortunate that some talented Europeans will have this sword of Damocles hanging over them, but most will realize that this, like so many policies, will have to be negotiated in this new, post-referendum world.

May can also learn from previous negotiations, particularly the deal that Prime Minister David Cameron concluded with EU leaders on February 19, 2016. He won a number of concessions, such as exempting the United Kingdom from the commitment to form an “ever-closer union,” preventing the country from being required to contribute to eurozone bailouts, and limiting the country’s in-work benefits to immigrants (although not to the degree that the United Kingdom had originally demanded). However, Cameron’s efforts to secure a British parliamentary veto of European Commission proposals fell short of expectations, as did his efforts to exempt the United Kingdom from EU financial regulations. Euroskeptics were always going to be hard to satisfy and were quick to say that he had failed to win back the country’s control over its own affairs.

The lessons from that experience will feed into the current negotiation planning. For example, more time should have been committed to building up blocs of alliances among the other 27 member countries. May has already made visits to smaller central and eastern European nations, which suggests that she recognizes that more time should have been devoted to building support across the continent.

The second challenge is the United Kingdom’s internal struggles. Here, May has pledged not to invoke Article 50 until she has secured a “UK-wide approach” that addresses concerns in Northern Ireland and Scotland. The two regions voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, and Scotland has threatened to hold its own “leave the United Kingdom” vote. May visited Edinburgh in mid-July and then ten days later traveled to Belfast, sending a clear signal of her commitment to include the concerns of the devolved administrations in the negotiations.

Another issue is that no less than 11 national elections are scheduled in EU member countries over the next two years. The landscape will inevitably shift over the course of the negotiations. Reports now suggest that the British government will wait until after the elections in France and Germany next year to invoke Article 50, pushing the start of the two-year formal negotiation process to late 2017, which would provide additional time for the United Kingdom to prepare.

Boris Johnson, June 24, 2016.
Mary Turner / Reuters

Immediately following the referendum, leaders in Brussels and in several individual EU capitals staked out seemingly inflexible positions. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, declared, “Brexit will not be an amicable divorce.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel ruled out informal negotiations before the invocation of Article 50, stating that this action should not take “a long time.” French President François Hollande demanded that the British government submit the Article 50 notice speedily.

However, it is important to look beyond these statements, which can be seen as opening bargaining ploys, to the underlying interests of all the parties, where more flexibility will almost certainly be found eventually. In many cases, the political self-interest of the parties on the other side of the negotiating table may outweigh their commitment to what Brussels likes to call “the European project.” Already, the public statements from Paris and Berlin have started to shift, with Hollande saying that he accepts that the United Kingdom needs time to prepare for the post-referendum negotiations and Michael Roth, Germany’s minister for European affairs, speculating that the country could have a “special” status within the EU. Even Merkel has now indicated that the negotiations should not start before next year’s German elections, which will not take place any earlier than August 27, 2017. The positions of all the players will inevitably keep shifting as they respond to a range of domestic and other pressures.

A final consideration for the United Kingdom is to avoid having negotiations over the single market, with its “four freedoms” (the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people), be set apart from the negotiations over other concerns. Although trade and migration issues are high on the agenda, it would be a mistake for them to be negotiated within a single-market silo. It may be that an issue to be negotiated in an unrelated area, such as health, consumer protection, or rules for the digital economy, could provide an opportunity to create a deal on a difficult single-market issue. 

The next step, then, which British negotiators will constantly need to revisit and refine when they are at the negotiating table, is to to apply a relative value to each issue on multiple agendas from the perspective of each negotiating party. They will be looking for as many issues as possible where both (or multiple) parties attach a different value to the same issue. Looking back to the 1978 Camp David accords, it was assumed that it would be impossible for Egypt and Israel to agree on how to divide the Sinai, which they initially both wanted. But they wanted it for different reasons. Israel needed a buffer against a surprise attack. Egypt saw the region as a matter of prestige and historical significance—that it should be Egyptian as it had been at the time of the Pharaohs. The solution was for it to become a part of Egypt but with a commitment to keep it demilitarized. Both sides got what they wanted: Israel got security, and Egypt got sovereignty. Seldom will what is called “creating value” be this clear-cut, but capitalizing on these differentials is one of the most fundamental elements of negotiation theory.

The Brexit negotiators need to look for issues that are of high value for one negotiator to gain on and of comparatively low cost for the other negotiator to concede. The more issues that can be identified where the cost and value to each side is different, the easier it will be to make multiple trades.

Above all, the EU needs to establish clear rules on communication with the press and the public about the negotiations. These rules will call for the careful balancing of transparency with the need for discretion, so that deals can be made and discussed without being compromised by premature public revelations.

The eventual agreement on the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU may be much more positive than the shrill debate in the aftermath of the vote on June 23, 2016, implied it would be. But once a comprehensive agreement has been reached, the British government will face a big remaining challenge: selling the package to a population that was so polarized by the referendum.

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  • TIM CULLEN is an Associate Fellow at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford and Director of the Oxford Programme on Negotiation.
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