Poker face

Whatever your views on Britain leaving the European Union, the country is certain now to be entering an extended period of negotiation with the EU and its member nations to unpick the UK from its forty-year relationship.

In the past few weeks there has been a repeated claim from various government ministers that we shouldn’t be revealing “our cards” before negotiations begin. In fact Pretti Patel, the International Development Secretary this morning on the Andrew Marr show went as far as to say

“If I were to sit down and play poker with you this morning, I’m not going to show you my cards before we even start playing the game,”

This is really worrying. Negotiation isn’t poker. Poker is a game of deception, guile and cunning. Poker is a zero-sum game – there are winners and losers.

Negotiation is a collaborative act in which empathy is one of the most critical skills. Good negotiators look to find outcomes that benefit both parties and from which both can hold heads high. Win/win rather than zero sum. Good negotiators start with a clear understanding of what both they and the other party are looking to achieve.

Ultimately you can play poker with someone and then never have to encounter them ever again. We don’t want to screw our closest major trading bloc, because whatever happens we’ll need to continue to do significant things with them beyond the UK exiting the EU.

Now it could be political bluster aimed at delivering a message to voters at home, appearing to be “getting tough” as we “take back control”, and meanwhile the (formerly) smokey back rooms will be collaborative spaces where real negotiation will happen. Indeed, although we’re not “showing our cards”, the Prime Minister has been fairly explicit in outlining her assumption that Brexiteers all voted for tougher immigration controls. That sounds like a fairly clear open hand to me.

The complexity in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations is that it is at the same time with one body (The EU) and 27 (the remaining member states). The needs of the one body are presumably going to be about maintaining unity amongst the remaining members (a challenge that is increasingly hard).

The needs of individual member nations (presumably with whom the UK can’t actually formally negotiate) will be many and varied.

Most of the larger nations have balance of trade surpluses with the UK, but it’s difficult to see if any of them rely on us and much as we rely on the EU as a trading bloc as a whole. Some have significant expat populations in the UK (and not only those in the newer member states which seem to be the thing that gets all of the Faragey Focus). Some have outstanding matters with the UK (most notably, I guess, Spain with Gibraltar).

And whilst all of those member nations have the right of veto with the final agreement, being able to deliver a deal that meets all members needs in some way, meets those assumed* within the UK electorate and can be delivered in two years from the triggering of Article 50… well, let’s just say that approaching this as a game of poker is more than a little bit simplistic.

The bigger challenge, perhaps, is that there isn’t actually consensus amongst politicians in parliament (the majority of whom supported the remain campaign) about what we want. I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that leaving the EU is like a moonshot mission, an amazingly ambitious and complicated challenge.

But rather than having JFK’s vision and legacy to fuel the accomplishment of the unimaginably complex, we’ve got a bunch of blokes down the pub arguing about whether it’s about keeping Johnny Foreigner in check, taking back democratic control, or shifting spending to home matters (and a bunch of other issues in between), and then some mildly disinterested politicians tasked with the actual implementation.

Whichever way, a starting position of negotiation on the basis of win/lose will almost certainly deliver that outcome (with no guarantees that we’ll be the winners) – or worse still (as is shown in the Prisoner’s Dilemma) lose/lose. If there is anything that that piece of game theory tells us, it’s that it would be a damn sight easier to get a win/win outcome if everything is out in open rather than kept secret.

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* just for the record, I’m not suggesting that the 52% wasn’t a winning majority – just that there are a lot of assumptions being made about for what it was the 52% voted. All that we know for absolute certain is that in response to the question “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” they responded with a cross next to “Leave the European Union”

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