Negotiation in the News: Lessons from David Cameron’s failed Brexit negotiations

By on / International Negotiation

In negotiation, we typically devote significant time to trying to convince a counterpart of the logic and appeal of our proposals. But sometimes our role becomes a more defensive one, as we face the challenge of trying to dissuade another party from pursuing a route that we believe could be disastrous.

That was the task outgoing United Kingdom (UK) prime minister David Cameron faced as he tried to convince members of his own political party and then the British public of the merits of remaining in the European Union (EU). The decision of a narrow majority of voters on June 23 for Britain to exit the EU (a process referred to as Brexit) triggered Cameron’s resignation, created turmoil in the global financial markets, and left the British confronting an unpredictable future.

The limits of remain or leave

As the eurozone struggled to emerge from the global recession in the years after 2008, many in Britain regarded the EU with unease and began looking for a way to distance the UK from the European economy.

In 2012, Cameron, prime minister since 2010, faced pressure from the right wing of his Conservative Party to hold a national referendum that would allow British voters to decide whether to remain in the EU. Hoping to keep that lobby in check, at an EU summit in Brussels, Cameron successfully negotiated to block plans to extend a eurozone banking union across the EU and secured other commitments aimed at protecting the British economy from the euro’s problems, as reported by the Guardian.

Back in London, Cameron rejected the idea of an “in or out” referendum. Calling himself a “practical euroskeptic,” the prime minister said a referendum offered citizens only two limited choices: remain or leave. EU membership, he argued, enabled the UK to be a full negotiating partner within the EU. “Most people in Britain want a government that stands up and fights within Europe and gets things we want in Europe,” Cameron said, according to the Guardian.

The prime minister gives in

But by January 2013, Cameron was facing strong pressure to hold a referendum on the question of EU membership from nearly 100 Conservative members of Parliament and increasingly from the right-wing UK Independent Party, whose vocal protests over the influx of migrants across the EU’s open borders into Britain had attracted increasing attention.

Cameron announced that his government, if reelected in 2015, would first negotiate with the EU for new commitments to address rising UK concerns about immigration, sovereignty, EU bureaucracy, and other issues. After the EU negotiations, Cameron said, the UK would hold an in-out referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017.

Following the Conservative Party’s victory in the May 2015 general election, Cameron announced a referendum date of June 23, even as he actively campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU.

Concessions and compromise

Emboldened by his decisive reelection in May 2015, Cameron visited 20 EU member states to lay the groundwork for his formal negotiations with the EU.

Eager to entice British voters to stay in the Union, EU leaders agreed readily to demands they could easily meet and negotiated for concessions on others. Britain secured new economic protections for itself and for the other eight EU nations that don’t use the euro. To appease voter concerns about British sovereignty, the EU agreed to exclude the UK from official references to the EU’s goal of building a European “superstate.” Although the EU would not agree to allow national parliaments to veto proposed EU laws, as Cameron proposed, it did agree that it would reconsider such proposals if it heard complaints from parliaments. In addition, EU leaders agreed to lower taxes and bureaucratic hurdles for small and medium-sized businesses.

On the key issue of immigration, however, Cameron failed to make much headway. Given the EU’s commitment to guaranteeing free movement of and nondiscrimination against European citizens, EU leaders said they could not cut welfare benefits for migrant workers arriving in Britain from other parts of Europe. The negotiators did, however, discuss the idea of an “emergency brake” that could allow Britain to deny benefits to incoming EU workers for their first four years in the country.

A failed campaign

Having zigzagged from one European capital to the next over the course of months, Cameron capped his campaign at a two-day summit of European leaders in December with “a bravura performance over dinner,” according to Reuters. Cameron, other European heads of state, and EU leaders felt confident that they had granted the UK a generous deal that he could use to propel a “remain” vote in the referendum.

But in the campaign period that followed, “leave” proponents argued forcefully that Cameron had failed to adequately address the immigration issue with the EU. The vote was close, but Cameron’s campaign ultimately failed. In future issues of the newsletter, we will analyze negotiations surrounding Britain’s anticipated departure from the EU as well as the trade deals the nation will now need to renegotiate across Europe.

3 tips for mounting a successful campaign

Hindsight is 20/20; the Brexit vote could easily have gone the other way—and almost did. Yet the result does suggest the following three precautions for negotiators who are seeking to avoid an outcome they believe would be highly damaging to themselves and others:

1. Weigh the risks of concessions. Cameron may have been overconfident in his ability to convince the British people of the virtues of remaining in the EU. In negotiation, temper your confidence with a thorough risk analysis.

2. Anticipate the limits of negotiations with allies. Cameron negotiated strenuously with the EU for the concessions he thought he’d need to convince British voters to stay in the union. However, he failed to make headway on immigration, the issue most important to many of his citizens.

3. Sell the deal back at home. Many UK voters were not convinced that the prime minister had gotten a great deal from the EU. Selling your deal to your constituents is a critical but often overlooked responsibility in negotiation.

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