An interesting thread by Dmitry Grozoubinski on why, instead of delaying the Brexit negotiations because of the coronavirus, UK and EU negotiators really just can’t videoconference.


First published in March 2020.

Seeing a lot of people asking, “Why can’t the negotiators just videoconference?”

It is a reasonable question, and the answer is in three parts:
1) Practical;
2) Technical;
3) Political.


◦ Practical Challenges

These are probably the easiest to overcome technically, but they are worth mentioning. The UK-EU negotiating teams are large, and even the smaller sub-meetings involve half a dozen people per side. A 12-way video conference is chaos.

A lot of progress at key moments in negotiations happens between sessions, in small breakout coffees or even in the halls. A lot happens because of trust built up between the negotiators. That is hard to replicate in Microsoft Teams.

◦ Technical Challenges

A big chunk of what negotiators spend their time doing is trying to come up with legal language both sides regulators and officials can live with. Both sides might agree on what they are trying to do, but finding language to capture it is the trick.

This process requires constant input and verification from officials outside the negotiating room. Right now, most government departments are too busy trying to keep the country from imploding to be scrutinizing legal text. Teams will struggle to get input and clearance.

Treasury, for example, is going to be busy managing unprecedented state-aid bailouts, all while half its staff are working from home or are not working at all.   They won’t have the bandwidth to properly scrutinize the financial services chapter.

◦ Political Challenges

Every negotiation begins with politicians on both sides agreeing in principle that they want a deal, but holding some directly contradictory views on what should be in it. Negotiators work within those confines.

The most a negotiator can do is reduce the unresolved issues in a negotiation down to a small handful for political leaders to make the final decision on. Politicians just aren’t going to be in the right headspace to make those calls.

None of this would be fatal in a normal trade negotiation, where there is no time limit. Negotiating sessions could happen, or not, with some progress being made where possible. The EU-UK negotiations, with their built in time-limit, simply don’t support that approach.

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FAQs

“The technical challenges are easily solvable with modern technology.”

You might be right. I can only talk about my judgement and my experience, and that suggests it would be a challenge. I’d also add that most negotiators aren’t tech savvy Silicon Valley types – like at all.

“This is just you trying to extract more money from the UK for your EU paymasters!”

First, lol. Second, the UK’s annual contribution to the EU post-rebate is about £13.2 billion. The Spanish bailout package alone is like £170 billion. Get a grip!

“The EU is probably so tired of Brexit that they won’t accept an extension.”

Possibly, but I am skeptical. They weren’t exactly focused on these negotiations before, and with half of Europe in quarantine I personally think they’d welcome the chance to put this on the back-burner.


Tweets posted on 17 March 2020 by @DmitryOpines.






[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 19 March 2020 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

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