Where is the text, Boris?

A negotiation starts with a document. Whoever slams their document on the table first is winning all the way through, if he can just keep it on the table. That document is the basis of the agreement to come, and though it may be cut about, covered in red ink amendments, sworn at, had appendices nailed on and provisos enough to sink a trawler, it is the chassis on which the agreement is built. Its basic definitions are the pre-conceptions, the bones on which it grows, and its structure the structure of the deal.

Where is the text? The British text must be on the table in Brussels on Day 1.

Mrs May’s team were hopeless:  they just waited limply for the Europeans to suggest things and, as they had no ideas of their own, they had to go along with them.  We saw the result, and the House of Commons spewed it out of their mouths. This time it matters, as this time we are not looking at a year-long transition but a trade treaty which may last for generations.

Before the negotiating text there must be the Heads of Terms, and we have these in the form of the Political Declaration, which is why it is so important. The text must follow that framework and if it does so there can be no complaint of reneging on the deal.  We have seen the Europeans backsliding on their word already, trying to add into their position elements which were specifically removed from Mrs May’s surrender version of the political declaration.  They cannot be trusted to produce a text. However there is a wrinkle or two in that: more later.

The political declaration is very good: it is not comprehensive we can’t quite say ‘yeah, that’ and leave it to go no further, but it provides enough of a skeleton to build a very well-set body upon.

Long before we got to this stage the Brexit-bearing thinktanks had been working up to this moment, saying they have a text in embryo. Very well – let us slam that text on the table.

The pre-match sparring has been done, the taunts and feints. The teams are gathering. MI6 I hope has done what needs to be done as the other side have (but that idiot from the DGSE was too obvious, Monsieur). The places are set around the table (with the sun shining in the British delegation’s eyes in the afternoon and the wobbly chairs etc) but the meetings are on.

So where is our text?

The noise from Brussels and Paris should remind Whitehall of a few lessons learnt over the last forty years of negotiating with the European institutions, but which they incomprehensibly (and incompetently) seem to forget every time. Brussels haggles the way you should:  to win a cow they ask for the herd.  It is a British curse that our Foreign Office wallahs misunderstand and hand over the whole farm.  It is not to be wondered that the European politicians push at the envelope, beyond the terms of the Political Agreement, as they might just get away with it, and if not, bien, that is where you have to start. No one should be riled but they should understand this for what it is.

Even so, we need to get out text down first.

For one thing, our people will be better at writing a text. Anyone who has had the misfortune to have to wade through a European Union text will know how awful it is – long screeds of political preambles beginning “whereas” and then straight into jargon that begins to depart from commercial reality from page 1 (or, after those preambles, page 23).

The British delegations always had a reputation for common sense and plain speaking: deploy those now or we will be knee-deep in fluff searching for any substance. That indeed is how to hide the horrors: bury them in fluff. Fluff cannot be argued with but can be filled with Trojan horses, and eventually after wading through endless, meaningless words your counterpart starts agreeing things just to get rid of it, and that is where you win. It is unprincipled, timewasting, dishonest, thoroughly European, and devastatingly effective.

The British drafting technique is rather different: define your basic precepts, say what you mean and leave it at that. On such a structure there is no perch to add ambiguity and political blind-sides and it can all be wrapped up in a couple of months. I have done more complicated deals in less time.

It is traditional at this point to wish the team good luck, but it is not about luck. I hope that they will understand if my wish is more blunt: “Get on with it.”

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Author: AlexanderTheHog

A humble scribbler who out of my lean and low ability will lend something to Master Hobbes

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