EU's Brexit Strategy Shows How Aggressive Transparency Can Be Used To Gain The Upper Hand In Negotiations

from the poor-Theresa-May-doesn't-stand-a-chance dept

We’re big fans of transparency around here, as you may have noticed. In particular, Techdirt has repeatedly called for trade deals to be negotiated more openly to allow greater input from the public — and less backlash when they find out what has been agreed without them behind closed doors. But a fascinating post from the Institute for Government, a UK-based think-tank “working to make government more effective”, points out that aggressive transparency can also be used to gain the advantage during high-level political negotiations.

In this case it is the critical “Brexit” negotiations between the EU and the UK that will determine their future relationship if and when the UK leaves the European Union. The stakes are incredibly high: the financial implications alone run into hundreds of billions of euros. Moreover, the UK’s place in the world is also at play, as it extracts itself from the biggest geopolitical bloc in an attempt to go it alone. As the post points out, the approaches taken by the EU and the UK could hardly be more contrasted:

The European Council [one of the key EU bodies setting strategy] has published its “transparency regime” for the Brexit negotiations, committing the EU to a far greater degree of transparency than anything that we have seen in the UK. It sets out the ten classes of documents that could be issued by the Council, the [European] Commission and [EU] member states, along with a default level of public disclosure for each.

The UK government, by contrast, has said rather sniffily it would not be offering a “running commentary on Brexit negotiations”, and aims to keep its plans totally under wraps. The Institute for Government points out that this is a big mistake:

The EU wants to be able to control the public narrative around Brexit. Two weeks ago, the EU published its draft negotiating mandate. Its proposals on the prerogative of the European Court of Justice, the rights of EU citizens in the UK and the sequencing of the negotiations were in all the UK papers. Having taken a self-imposed vow of secrecy, Prime Minister Theresa May was unable to respond to any of the issues of substance.

In other words, 500 million Europeans are only hearing the EU’s side of the story, and the EU’s views on what should happen during Brexit. Theresa May’s secrecy means that she cannot rebut any of the assertions, nor offer her own vision (cynics say that is because she has neither a vision nor a plan?.) The post points out that the EU’s approach is not naïve or simplistic, but carefully planned and nuanced — open for this aspect, but more reticent elsewhere:

A degree of secrecy is necessary to allow negotiators the space to think innovatively, to propose and weigh potential compromises. So, the EU stops short of a commitment to total transparency. It wants talks to be open, but not wide open.

The UK on the other hand wants to run as much of the negotiations behind closed doors as possible. That may just be the preferred operating style of this government or it may be a conscious decision. Whatever the reason, it will play right into the EU’s hands.

It’s a perceptive analysis that adds to the already compelling reasons why such high-level talks should be open and transparent as a matter of course. It’s a pity that the one person who needs to take heed of that fact — the UK’s Prime Minister — almost certainly won’t. Both she and the country she nominally controls are likely to pay a high price as a result.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and +glynmoody on Google+

Filed Under: , , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “EU's Brexit Strategy Shows How Aggressive Transparency Can Be Used To Gain The Upper Hand In Negotiations”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
That One Guy (profile) says:

"Well if you won't tell them, I will..."

Gotta love the EU’s play here. With the UK side’s self-imposed silence the EU can basically shape the entire public discussion to it’s liking, such that if the UK wants to challenge something the EU side says they’ll be forced to be ever so slightly transparent as well, with refusal to do so leaving people with whatever the EU says.

The UK side couldn’t have sabotaged their own efforts better had they deliberately tried, and I can only imagine that the people on their side who realize this have got be be furious with May and the others that handed down the edict of silence for screwing them over so badly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Oh, UK can respond. Attack the narrative. Create FUD.

It worked wonders when they voted on the issue and except for UKIP, it is the same old guard of fake news politicians running the boat. Their Johnson has already been out attacking EU for ruining the national healthcare in UK, by overcharging for the exit. Since people don’t care anymore in UK, they will follow the flow of the media where FUD wins against rational arguments any day of the week and twice on sunday.

Arthur Moore (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

There’s one major problem with that sort of government propaganda. It may work internally, but it alienates everyone else.

That’s not a good thing when everyone else has the power to take their ball and go home. From the EU perspective, having several million people suddenly unemployed won’t be fun. Just like the financial chaos would suck. They’re trying to avoid it, but as long as they give advanced notice, they can at least soften the impact.

On the UK side, a hard brexit without any new trading treaties would wreck their economy. As in prices for any good going to or from the UK could almost double due to tariffs and additional customs restrictions. At least they use their own currency, so that problem has been avoided for now.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

One of my favourite responses from the Brexit idiots is when they start blathering that we “can’t ignore the wishes of 17.4 million people!”. But, surely, that implies we can happily ignore the wishes of 16.1 million people by that standard. They never have a good answer why other than “more people”, and they never ever like being reminded that they had a slim majority, not anything approaching a mandate.

Which, of course, would be fine in a standard election where we get to vote again in a few years and the result easily reversed should the mood of the country switch. A non-binding referendum where no details were ever defined, and the action implied irreversible, should have had so slim a margin to be enacted. There should have been further debate followed by another vote on what the actual plan would involve. Instead we have rats instantly abandoning ship, a year of May not listening to a single objection and people who voted Brexit saying “that’s not what we voted for” as soon as leaving the common market was planned.

Which people? May and Johnson, very few other opinions have been noted.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

May’s riding the tiger, frantically trying to hold on while it rages about trying to bite her.

As for the Brexit brigade, they’re deluded conspiracy theorists who hate the EU on principle (full disclosure: I’m not keen on ever-closer union and believe we would be better off as a trading bloc) and refuse to even look at anything that explains our legal position — or obligations. They’re the Willfully Know-Nothing party.

I’m still waiting for a better rationale to Brexit than “Rule Britannia, up the Empire!” I’ll be waiting for a while, won’t I?

Meanwhile you may find that the people who voted Brexit to stick it to the Establishment have changed their minds, leaving the hardcore xenophobes whingeing frantically about the likelihood of “unrest” if the Brexiters don’t get their way. That is unlikely though the Tories would be PUNISHED in the next election — which is likely to happen anyway because they’ve fouled this up so much. That the Brexiters had no plan for what they’d do if they won is bad enough but now that they’ve won they still have no clue. What a farce!

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

In my experience, there’s several types of Brexiteer:

1. Sovereignists. People for who the very existence of the EU is an abomination and every country should be an isolated entity – especially Great Britain. Except other countires are worth less, of course, since this type is usually the kind who pine for the Empire and see no hypocrisy in demanding isolation while also calling for colonialism.

2. Xenophobes/Racists. They generally hate all immigrants but have been scared by the influx of people from Eastern Europe. They seem to think that all problems can be solved by getting rid of the Poles (and the Indians, this type usually being too ignorant to understand that Brexit will not affect those people). Interestingly, this type are usually happy to apply double standards, as they have no problem going on holiday to Benidorm and insisting that all traces of Spanish culture is eradicated in favour of British things and see no hypocrisy when they complain of other cultures doing the same in the UK.

3. People who think that the UK will magically be better off if we didn’t have to negotiate in tandem with all those other countries. They can never explain how, never explain what specifically is wrong with the EU making decisions as a whole (apart from some blatantly lying headlines from the gutter press) and will certainly never admit that we’ve often been guilty of strong arming the rest of the EU to get what we wanted anyway.

4. People who haven’t a clue what the EU actually is or does. I’ve seen people bleat about not being part of the Euro (we aren’t, and probably never will be), about being part of Schengen (ditto), about being forced to give up our own parliament in favour of a central EU one (ditto). They’re scared of things that will literally never happen, and have often never been suggested by anyone outside of the Mail.

5. People who swallowed the lying propaganda whole, and voted for a lie. For example – the people who believed the NHS bus advert (whose creator has recently admitted that Brexit is a mistake). These people voted to save the NHS, failing to realise that the attacks on incoming EU healthcare professionals plus the loss of subsidies will actually damage it. Ditto the people in communities who voted Brexit to increase jobs, unaware that their local employment sector is dependant on EU subsidies. These are the only group I really feel pity for, as they generally voted for good, they just didn’t realise how evil the man behind the curtain was in reality. But, my pity is short-lived, because these are also the type who claimed they didn’t need to listen to experts and rejected pragmatic warnings as fearmongering.

6. People who know what Brexit will do to damage the country, but stand to benefit personally in some way so they don’t really care.

If someone doesn’t fit into one of those categories or has a concrete description of how Brexit will be better, I’ve never come across them.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“whats the point of a referendum if it is non-binding? Why would you want to know people’s opinion and choice if it is not to make a decision?”

Well, a referendum can be advisory, but called when you need to know the opinion of the populace to make a decision. Many referendums are not legally binding. The results may help inform future decisions without needing to be acted upon directly.

The Brexit referendum was not legally binding. They could have said “OK, this needs a lot of planning before execution” or even “well, that’s interesting, but the majority isn’t large enough to take any drastic action right now”. The fact that they chose “let’s take the most drastic action available without considering the consequences” is their choice, not something that came from the referendum itself.

PaulT (profile) says:

To be fair, the reason why May is being so opaque about her plans is that despite her “Brexit means Brexit” blather, nobody on her side has decided what it means or what they’re doing. They only triggered article 50 to try and get an easy election win and cement May’s mandate, and now that that has utterly backfired they don’t know what they trying to do.

When they have been transparent with things such as their desire to keep all the benefits of EU membership while cutting off things like free movement, they’ve been correctly mocked on all sides for their hopeless naivete and impossible demands.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I can’t imagine. I follow David Allen Green and Ian Dunt on Twitter. They’re lawyers keeping an eye on the process and the news is grim: our government is so hopelessly mired in ideological considerations they’re not doing any of the procedural things required to move thing forward. No position papers, no plan to replace regulatory agencies… they’re just hoping to muddle through as best they can and if the people whinge, they’ll say, “Well, you voted for this!”

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“they’ll say, “Well, you voted for this!””

Except, of course, we didn’t. I wish the referendum had been a little more nuanced, so we could see who actually voted for the nuclear approach May is attempting and who merely wanted to withdraw from open borders or other single issues.

I’ll bet the UKIP crowd would be shocked to see how small a minority they had for the approach that’s being take here. I don’t think that Brexiters are the brightest bunch, but even they largely voted for a subtler, less damaging tactic.

As it is, it’s like hiring an exterminator, watching as they blow up your house instead of fumigating it and them going “well, you called us to get rid of the vermin, it’s your fault!”.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Indeed. That they’re clinging like grim death to “But the referendum!” is telling. We were lied to, end of discussion.

Funny story: I’ve noticed that it’s the neoliberal/libertarian types who are doing all the whingeing, threatening, and refusing to look up the legal implications. People with a social conscience want either soft Brexit or to scrap it altogether.

I’d be interested to learn if hardcore Brexiters really do all toe the alt-right line or is there more to it than that?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

“People with a social conscience want either soft Brexit or to scrap it altogether.”

Most people with a social conscience voted against Brexit to begin with. There were some who were fooled into thinking that voting Brexit would be the compassionate way (e.g. people who were fooled by the lie on the infamous NHS bus), but I can’t think of a reason why someone with a social conscience would have voted for it if their reason for doing so was based in reality.

ShadowNinja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Yeah, May has shown since the beginning to be a really incompetent moron.

At this point if May stays in charge I bet the UK fails to reach an agreement on the brexit terms with the EU by the time their 2 year deadline runs out. And as John Oliver outlined a month or two ago, that would automatically result in the harshest Brexit possible.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

At this point if May stays in charge I bet the UK fails to reach an agreement on the brexit terms with the EU by the time their 2 year deadline runs out.

This will happen anyway.If is completely impossible for the negotiations to be complete in the 2 years. Two years is way too short a time to undo 43 years (actually it is onger than that because some institutions that the UK joined before joining the EU , like Euratom, are now integrated withthe EU and May, in an act of gross stupidity wants to leave them too).

However the result will not be a hard separation – rather it will be continued partial membership, keeping everything apart from the UK’s influence on policy via the parliament, the commission and the council of ministers.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Two thoughts. First, who demanded that level of secrecy, the EU or Americans? There’s similar stories surrounding things like TPP, in which the EU was not involved. It would be wrong to use something that the EU did not come up with against them here (though things the EU does not actually do was the backbone of Brexit propaganda).

Secondly, what does it matter if it’s propaganda in this case? It’s a positive move for the majority of people involved, and it will make it more difficult to justify secrecy in future negotiations.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think it was discussed rather entirely as a strategy. Call it propaganda if it seems like it makes a point with the baggage that word has, but it doesn’t really fit. A behavior is not propaganda. Might the move be partially cynical and/or manipulative? I would imagine someone on that end wants it for those reasons, given the number of people involved. But the thing is, you get better behavior however you can, and reinforce it. But honestly, I can’t ascribe purely or mostly cynical motives to this. The EU seems to have a decent positive streak that shows up here and there.

Most all “trade” deals are messed up, full stop. Of course the TTIP was a pantload, and plenty of EU MEPs and other pols pointed it out. Which ones are “the EU”, and which ones aren’t?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Most all “trade” deals are messed up, full stop.”

I could not agree more. Because all those trade deals in the end involve fucking up the average citizen and protecting and benefiting the big corporations. Those idiots in power know no nations, no ethnicity, no religions (those are just charades for the fool)…they only know about one thing and one thing only, MONEY.

Hugo S Cunningham (profile) says:

European human rights court not required

As a foreigner, I thought the most persuasive Brexit argument was that European human rights law made it almost impossible to deport jihadists like Abu Qatada. But it turns out that Britain’s Blair government enacted the “Human Rights Act” in 1998 independent of EU requirements. A successor government could presumably rescind or amend it by the same means.

Apart from that, the Brexiteers (May, Johnson, and Farrage) seem clueless. They would probably do best to admit the whole thing was a mistake.

Cowardly Lion says:

In the News

In the new today – the UK is about to present plans as to which EU laws it intends to jettison. Said to be the biggest legal overhaul in British history. Ever.

My money is on the EU Human Rights Directive being amongst the first. The Conservative Party (of which May is a member) have detested these rights since day one. They’ve NEVER forgiven the indomitable Lord Shaftesbury for introducing the Chimney Sweepers Act of 1875, thereby preventing children from being (ab)used by their masters and forced up the chimneys of Ye Olde London Town.

ECA (profile) says:


Lets say that you are having an OPEN negotiations..with 1 country/state..
And another nation Jumps in and says they can do it cheaper, or, WE can do it better? or we can do it faster..

ISNT that open competition??
Something WE NEED??
Something Corps do in South Asia, until the price is so cheap that SOMEONE is making a profit 10-100 times what they would ANYWHERE ELSE??

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m going to tell you absolutely everything I want you to know and demonize my opponents as being “secretive”, thereby driving the popular narrative and keeping the masses firmly clueless.

Oh, and I’m calling it “transparency”, because it is what I say it is.

Come on, does *anybody* believe the bloated, elitist EU leadership and bureaucracy is *actually* going to share *everything* going on with Brexit? Sure, they’ll trumpet the favorable (to their side) information, but how about the dirty sausage-making going on in the background? No chance.

If anything, British leadership is being more transparent by saying “we ain’t sharing anything”. Not a popular soundbyte, but certainly more honest.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It helps if you actually read the article, all of it, before commenting, as otherwise you might end up jousting after strawmen.

A degree of secrecy is necessary to allow negotiators the space to think innovatively, to propose and weigh potential compromises. So, the EU stops short of a commitment to total transparency. It wants talks to be open, but not wide open.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Yes, but at least EU is more open than UK.

EU may be somewhat open. But UK is zero transparent and admitted by them.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not defending that pink anonymous coward, I am just pointing to the fact that the EU is at least somewhat transparent while the UK is zero transparent.

Also this pink anonym coward’s assertion that UK is more transparent for admitting they won’t share anything is complete bs. If anything they just admitted they won’t be transparent.

Admitting of not being transparent does not make you a bit transparent.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“If anything, British leadership is being more transparent by saying “we ain’t sharing anything”. Not a popular soundbyte, but certainly more honest.”

That is complete BS. We ain’t sharing anything doesn’t mean they are transparent, it just means they are accepting they won’t be transparent. You are twisted (maybe intentionally).

Anonymous Coward says:

“A degree of secrecy is necessary to allow negotiators the space to think innovatively, to propose and weigh potential compromises. “

Complete bullshit. It is the exact opposite, with zero secrecy and everything in the open the negotiators are left open to all kinds of input and ideas from all kinds of people. And are also left open to all kinds of scrutiny and this is the real reason of not wanting 100% transparency.

100% transparency = 100% scrutiny and that is what they don’t want.

As for the UK, it is obvious then UK negotiators don’t want any scrutiny.

You know that old adage employed by some many American and British government officials: “it is better to brag about being honest than actually being honest”.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...