Brexit Negotiations: How to make the impossible deal (part 3)

Arc de triomphe, Paris

Arc de triomphe, Paris

Britain must be shown it cannot keep “the nice things” about the EU without paying a price.
— Sigmar Gabriel, Deputy Chancellor of Germany

In the first blog of this series, we reviewed how to get a deal for Brexit and understood that the top eight countries by population are critical: Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, Romania, Netherlands and Belgium. First to prevent a blocking coalition and second to create a winning coalition of countries. In the second blog, we explained how to prepare for these complex negotiations. In this third blog, we will examine roles when negotiating as a team. Then we will look at how to negotiate in multi-party negotiations.

 Roles in negotiating teams.

To complete complex negotiations like Brexit, the UK will need to negotiate with teams. Given that the UK will want to complete negotiations as quickly as possible, there will be multiple negotiating teams, possibly as many as one for each country. Since the UK needs at least 17 countries to agree and agree fast, we suggest there will be at least 17 negotiating teams. (UK newspapers have quoted government sources as looking for 1000 negotiators.)

In our experience, team negotiations are often poorly executed. Like many negotiations, many negotiators do not prepare well enough. However, let’s assume that the UK team has prepared well.

The most likely problem is that when the UK team are in the room with the other negotiating team, the people in the UK team have not agreed beforehand what roles they will play. So, members of the UK negotiating team independently respond to the other side’s comments, questions and positions. Acting independently gives the other negotiating team the opportunity to divide and separate the UK negotiating team. So, in a negotiating team what role should people play?  There are five roles:

Team leader

Get the team working as one: planning and knowing how to execute plans at the negotiating table. The team leader does not necessarily conduct the negotiation.


Does most of the talking during the negotiation. At different stages, they call on the rest of the team to be involved in the discussion.

Numbers person

During the negotiation, keeps track of all facts and figures. As a team leader never agree to a deal until you have conferred with the numbers person. Sometimes what appears to be a good deal at the table is a poor deal when projected over five years because it gives tiny profits.


Brought into the team on complex issues when legal, finance, marketing, manufacture or other specialist issues need expert opinions or expert decisions.


Possibly the most difficult role. They normally do not speak or get involved in the negotiation. They observe the other side (reactions, responses and language) and give feedback to the team during breaks in the negotiation.

Used with permission from: The Creative Negotiator, 2 ed, 2016

In the Brexit negotiations, we suggest that the numbers person and the specialists are likely to be: trade negotiation experts. We suggest the spokesperson and team leaders roles would be best suited to experienced diplomats used to managing diverse interests of different countries. The spokesperson and team leaders need experience in presenting information to suit the domestic interests of different countries and experienced in delicate political multi-party negotiations.

What’s different about multi-party Negotiations?

In the 2014 book, Good For You, Great for Me, multi-party negotiations expert Lawrence Susskind highlights the key to success in multi-party negotiations is to manage two kinds of coalitions: blocking coalitions and winning coalitions. In multi-party negotiations, it is critical to understand the people who are not at the negotiating table, what Susskind calls the back table. For the Brexit negotiations for each country, this is their politicians. In brief, his advice is: help the other side sell your best deal to their back table.

Audiences make negotiators ‘Try Harder’ and ‘Act Tougher’
— Roy Lewicki & others

So the UK negotiating teams need to help the other countries’ negotiating teams to sell the best UK deal to that countries’ politicians.  This is why we recommend the team leader and spokesperson should be experienced diplomats.

In brief, to manage coalitions you must understand their: Consequences of No Agreement. Once you understand the consequences of no agreement for a country, then you can offer a little more than this to try to start the negotiation. Susskind is tough on this.

You don’t need to provide everything they want; you need only to match what their realistic walk-away will leave them with.
— Lawrence Susskind

However, we believe matching their walk-away will be insufficient to get the top eight countries (Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, Romania, Netherlands and Belgium) to agree and so prevent a blocking coalition forming with other countries.  So, we suggest for the top eight countries; the UK negotiators will need to offer each of these countries more than each countries’ walk-away.  That way UK negotiators will achieve their number 1 priority. 

Pressure can push negotiators into ‘Irrational Behaviour’
— Roy Lewicki & others

As you remember, in the first blog we said the priorities are:

  1. Get an agreement with the eight largest population countries (stop a blocking coalition)
  2. Find eight more countries that will agree from the remaining 16 possible countries (create a winning coalition)

The Brexit negotiations are tough; some would say impossible. In this series of three blogs we have shown that with the right preparation, with the right team and with the right management of coalitions: the UK can negotiate the impossible deal.

To the leader of the Brexit negotiations, we recommend all of your teams should have just one purpose. To paraphrase Susskind: 

Help enough EU countries sell your best deal to their politicians and their voters.