Police officers standing guard outside the Houses of Parliament, beneath the Big Ben, in Westminster, London. Brexit is a tumultuous event in the history of Britain and the European Union. (AFP PIC)

I WAS reminded of the Beatles’s poignant song, The Long and Winding Road, when British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered the formal two-year process of negotiations that would lead to Britain leaving the European Union after 44 years.

A letter invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and officially notifying the EU of Britain’s decision to withdraw from the bloc was hand-delivered to European Council President Donald Tusk in Brussels by British Ambassador to the EU Tim Barrow on March 29.

The lyrics to that popular song ... the long and winding road that leads to your door, will never disappear... made me think of the relationship between the UK and the EU. Will it disappear? Unlikely.

There is already dissent on the plans proposed by May in her Brexit exit document. German Chancellor Angela Merkel says the point of first discussion will be the monetary implication of Britain’s EU divorce, which is a bill potentially hitting €60 billion (RM337 billion). Only after this is settled would talks on the trade deal commence. There appears to be a conflict of ideas and this is understandably so.

Brexit is a tumultuous event in the history of the UK and the EU. Negotiating an exit is not going to be a bed of roses. The whole Brexit conundrum began with the perception that “once we get out of the EU, we can close our borders, and we will move triumphantly ahead on our own”. But, can this be so?

Those who come to the negotiating table have to be well prepared with a thorough understanding of issues. They will have to ensure that there is no escalation of conflict. Understanding the nature of the conflict is a positive step towards a successful negotiation.

The parties’ needs and wants have to be examined to chart a successful path towards resolving the dispute. Parties’ underlying goals and beliefs, and mutual perception need to be identified. How can this be done?

FIRST, by clever and honest communication. Communication is an essential element to draw out the passions and beliefs of the parties involved and their hidden interests. Only by communicating effectively with the parties and gaining their trust can a good negotiator uncover the hidden goals; and,

SECOND, the parties must come out of the “disputant” mentality. The current mental frames of the UK and the EU appear to suggest such a mentality. Both the UK and the EU should view the dispute as bystanders. A good negotiation will strive towards separating the people from the problem.

Fisher and Ury, in their 1981 book Getting to Yes — Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, say people tend to be inextricably intertwined with the dispute and this may lead to personal attacks taking the forward position. Separating people from the issues allows parties to address the matter at hand without damaging the relationship. The UK and the EU need to think of themselves as partners in a negotiation rather than as adversaries.

How then should the Brexit negotiations proceed? The ideal end-result would be that the UK has tighter border controls without damaging its relationship (in trade and services) with the EU.

One main reason for the referendum that led to the looming divorce of the UK from the EU stemmed from the uncontrolled movement of persons from the EU into the UK.

However, the influx of migrants has not been all negative for the UK, as they, too, have contributed positively to the workforce.

Statistics show that seven per cent of the workforce (skilled workers) living in the UK are from the EU, and according to the Office for National Statistics, migrant labour was particularly important for the retail, hospitality, public administration and healthcare sectors. The negotiation process needs to consider these statistics.

The valuable services of the migrant labour contributes positively to the economy of the UK. Around 1.5 million non-UK nationals were employed in the wholesale, retail, hospitality and healthcare sectors last year. But, after Brexit, there are indications that the National Health Service (NHS), which relies heavily on nurses from EU member countries, could see a reduction in the number of nurses signing up.

The UK hopes for a deep and special partnership with the EU after Brexit, but can this be achieved? Can a profitable trade deal be engineered while border controls are tightened? The impact of Brexit has to be seen from an objective viewpoint. Sentiments need to be considered as they involve people. Trade is important, but so are people. Economic growth is important for a country, but the growth is propelled by a workforce.

There has to be a right way of achieving what both parties need, not necessarily what they want. Initially, though, the problems may seem insurmountable, but as the first year moves into the second, things may be discussed with constructive initiatives that may be beneficial to both partners.

Address the needs rather than the wants. Brexit negotiators have to bear in mind, though, that March 2019 is not too far away — they must sharpen their skills towards a win-win situation and it should be soon.


Grace Xavier is a research fellow, Faculty of Law, Universiti Malaya

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