What to do when you know it's important

Published: Oct 22 , 2015
Author: David Bannister

Daniel Hannan is a British Member of the European Parliament (MEP), an institution for which he seems to have little warmth (as do quite a number of other British MEPs).  The UK has announced its intention to renegotiate the terms of its membership of the European  Union (EU) and to put the issue to a referendum in the next couple of years.  The tactics of all of this are of more than passing interest to a negotiator.  So far, our Prime Minister, David Cameron, has made only relatively vague references to what issues will be on the agenda when he negotiates with his fellow leaders, some of whom have wasted no time to tell Cameron what they think will not be on the agenda.  Those of us interested in the negotiating tactics might conclude (as I do) that not saying what you want is not a great starting point on the journey to getting what you want.  That’s where Daniel Hannan comes in.  Hannan has written in one of our more weighty newspapers an article called  ‘Here’s what David Cameron should demand from EU leaders’.  Whether our Prime Minister chooses to accept any or all of this advice is not pertinent to my point here.  The fact that someone is at least trying to articulate a proposal should warm the heart of a negotiator.

The proposal Hannan makes is in the form of a hypothetical letter from David Cameron addressed to Donald Tusk, the Polish politician who is head of the European Council.  David Cameron has undertaken to write to Tusk outlining the proposals he has for the renegotiation.   Daniel Hannan’s newspaper article is his advice on what that letter to the President should contain.  As Robert Townsend says in his wonderful book: ‘Up the Organisation’, “If you don’t know where you’re going, the chances are you won’t end up there” (think about it!). So setting out your stall, making your proposal is a good move, in my view.  In the letter which forms his newspaper article, Hannan suggests no fewer than eleven items where he would wish to see change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.  They are all carefully numbered and set out and include tax,  agriculture, borders, common law and others.  He argues his case for change in each of the eleven areas and does so with what seems to be genuine concern.  So far, so good, a negotiator might think.  Then, as his final point he writes:

“I understand that, as in any negotiation, neither side will secure 100% of its objectives.  You will have your red lines, I mine.  I should let you know that the demands I regard as critical are 3,9 and 11.  If we can secure satisfaction on these items, I am hopeful that my countrymen will vote for the package in the referendum.”

As a negotiator, what do you think about that final paragraph?  Are you, like me, tempted to write to Donald Tusk with advice suggesting that his response could be along the following lines:

“Dear Prime Minister, thank you for your letter and for setting out the threeitems which are genuinely important to you.  When we meet to discuss these three items, I suggest that I will begin by telling you the five items which are critically important that you agree to before I am able to discuss any of your three issues.  One of my five items will be that there will be no further mention of the other eight items on your list which are not ‘red lines’.”

I have no idea if Tusk has five, ten or a hundred red lines, I just speculate to make my point which is that if you recognise the existence of ‘red lines’ which the other side may have, you must always try to confirm what they might be (perhaps in return for giving some indication of yours) and you should never choose to weaken your position by saying the equivalent of: “Here’s eleven things, but actually eight of them are padding and posturing”.

Whatever any of us might think about the EU and the UK’s part in it, we are in for quite a number of fun months for the informed and interested negotiating observer on the sidelines!

David Bannister



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David Bannister
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