Despite Theresa May’s weakness reasonable progress has been made in Brussels. No no deal. No Brussels trouncing. Why did her weakness not lead to weakness in the negotiations and what can we learn from this?
2017 was, at the very the least, an ill-starred year for UK Prime Minister Theresa May and her Conservative government. May was dogged by gaff, scandal and disaster at home, all whilst attempting to negotiate the Brexit settlement abroad.
Compounding the Prime Minister’s misery were the parliamentarians and pundits, on hand after every misfortune to explain why her crumbling authority would have negative consequences for Britain in the Brexit negotiations. Dire predictions abounded; the negotiations were going to be a Brexi-nightmare and Britain was to be Brexi-bulldozed.
And yet here we are. Many would argue that a seemingly reasonable compromise has been reached on the Irish border, citizens’ rights and the divorce bill. Furthermore, it appears that the UK has not been bullied into capitulating wholesale at the negotiating table despite May’s weakness. What are we to make of this state of affairs?
First, we should not be surprised. American political scientist, Robert Putnam, showed negotiations are two level games: the agreement is negotiated internationally at level 1 and ratified domestically at level 2. Each negotiating team has a set of all possible agreements which could be reached at level 1 (the international level) and that ratifiers (members of the cabinet, parliament and the public) could accept at level 2 (the domestic level).
Providing a deal does not fall apart then the negotiators at level 1 will usually arrive at an agreement somewhere in the middle where their domestic win sets overlap and they can be confident of ratification.
So, if we take the divorce bill and citizens rights both sides began by touting their preferred options before ceding ground until an acceptable middle ground was reached. This is how negotiations between relative equals proceed – domestic weakness does not mean foreign surrender.
Second, and more speculatively, perhaps the law of unintended consequences has helped May, albeit perversely. The stronger a government is, the greater the number of potential agreements they can accept at the international level because they know they can simply force them through at the domestic level. Strangely therefore, strong governments can end up ceding more at the negotiating table. Had May done well in the June election she would have gone to Brussels with a strong parliamentary majority and her own personal mandate. As it turned out her gamble backfired catastrophically leaving her with no parliamentary majority and a divided party. Perhaps this has allowed her to withstand demands from the EU for say, a greater amount in the divorce bill, on the grounds that she would not be able to get the deal ratified at home.
However, this does not automatically mean that a negotiating team will be able to gain concessions. This is only possible if a government’s best alternative to no agreement is credible. In the UK, this would be to separate without continuity from the EU, falling back on WTO rules in the critical area of trade. If the EU did not believe this was credible and could have negative implications for the EU as well then they may well have taken advantage of May’s weakness to try and force a punitive deal upon the UK. Yet they have not.
Therefore, finally, EU leaders are committed to securing a sensible deal for both parties. They do not want to see a no deal scenario and such a scenario now looks highly unlikely. This could explain why EU leaders are publically praising May. Perhaps they feel that it is better to prop up a weak but amenable Prime Minister than deal with her potential replacement who would possibly be more prepared to destabilise negotiations by playing the ‘no deal’ card.
Dire domestic politics does not necessarily translate into a dire position at the negotiating table abroad. It now appears that May and the EU will reach a deal. That deal will not be optimal for either side but if the wiser heads prevail it will be fair and Britain will not be bulldozed.
Chris Kunkler (24) is a graduate student and lives in London. He is currently studying for a master’s degree in global politics at LSE.