SINGAPORE: When the UK voted for a future without the European Union (EU) on Jun 23, 2016 and activated the famous Article 50 to start negotiations on Mar 29, 2017, few would have imagined, almost three years later, rather than within arm’s reach, Brexit, in reality, seems further away than ever.
Back then the UK glowed of confidence and expected a quick win. Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade, even said that Brexit would be one of the easiest deals in human history.
But it’s now clear that overconfidence makes one blind, and Brexit negotiations have been a harrowing case in point.
The UK has been impressively blind to the complexities that choosing Brexit brings. More effort during the referendum campaign went into creating a fantasy where the old empire would come to life again, rather than trying to reconcile the idea of Brexit with the hard reality that the UK and EU are each other’s close neighbours and therefore will always influence each other.
It is like that one sentence in the song Hotel California:
You can check out at any time you like, but can never leave.
Unfortunately, no one listened.
The UK has also been blind to trying to understand the basic rules of negotiations. The only reason why parties negotiate is that they want to achieve something that they cannot achieve on their own. They need another party to help in achieving their aims.
It stands to reason that under such circumstances, some modesty and respect for the other party will serve one’s interests best.
Unfortunately, upon activation of Article 50, Theresa May paid little respect to her counterparts by proclaiming that the UK would rather have no deal than a bad deal.
She created the impression that UK could dictate terms, but the sad reality was that she had hardly any bargaining power. That her demonstrated power back then was nothing more than an illusion has been revealed by the UK’s new mantra that anything is better than no deal.
THE ART OF WAR
It would have served the UK better if they have read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, where the author posits the idea that any war is won or lost even before it begins.
Those who study the art of effective negotiations will agree as research shows that at least 50 per cent of the outcome of any negotiation is determined by how well you are prepared.
If they followed this advice, they would not have started with the idea that they could have their cake and eat it (entirely).
Instead, they would have put more time in trying to answer a bigger question: What do we want to achieve in these negotiations?
It has become painfully apparent that what Brexit stands for is not even clear to British politicians themselves. Even the EU has pointed out that the UK government is pretty good at saying what it does not want but not at what it wants.
Although they have been patient in their discussions with the UK so far, frustration and irritation are growing among EU member states.
The EU is a strong rules-based institution and usually leaves little room for emotion, but the fact that the UK seems unable to reach any consensus within their ranks as demonstrated daily within the House of Commons disarray has brought tensions to the surface.
By extending the deadline of Mar 29, the EU violated one of their basic principles that this kind of exit negotiations should only last two years. As a result, several political leaders in the EU have wondered whether the EU has compromised on some pretty fundamental principles and is losing international credibility because of this.
The truth is that although breaking one’s own rules hurts, to EU member states, the idea that the EU would have to be the one pulling the trigger to throw the UK of the union and put everyone out of their misery is even more difficult to stomach.
The EU should not worry too much about this, however, simply because they do not have to think about pulling the trigger or not.
The UK has put itself in a position where no-Brexit seems to be the most logical outcome anyway – if British politicians can come to terms with the need for a second referendum, much as that might entrench divisions within British society even more.
DEAL OR NO DEAL?
So far, the UK has failed to reach a consensus on any proposed Brexit approach. The only option that received enough support by MPs has been to avoid a no-deal, which has in the meantime taken the status of a UK law.
If the EU decides to be firm and set Apr 12 as the final deadline, then the UK will have to take drastic measures to avoid a no-deal. The most likely result then will be the choice for a no-Brexit.
However, this course of action will allow the UK to use this situation in advantageous ways because they could easily blame the EU and hold them responsible for the failure of the Brexit project. That would have huge ramifications for the unity of the EU.
The EU, however, could also do exactly the opposite by lifting the need for a deadline and asking the UK to come back when they know what they want.
The UK has shot itself in the foot several times and created such negotiation chaos that it seems impossible to achieve any consensus on Brexit.
As soon as the UK realises this, the default option, which is not to leave (as the no-deal option is rejected by a majority in the house), may introduce itself as the preferred option. The best way to help the UK achieve this awareness is letting them do what they are worst in, which is to allow them to stay in the negotiations without setting any deadline.
It is only then that they will have to blame themselves for losing so much time before concluding that no-Brexit is the way forward.
David De Cremer is Provost Chair and Professor of Management and Organisation at NUS Business School and former KPMG-chaired professor at the University of Cambridge, UK.