The acronym BATNA, the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, is central to negotiation theory. It yields over 13 million results in Google, over 10 times more than the negotiation best-seller Getting to Yes which coined the term well over three decades ago. If your BATNA is very strong, it is your main source of power in negotiation: you can go elsewhere if the emerging agreement is not at least as valuable as your alternative. Tactically you may chose to directly or indirectly reveal your BATNA to the other side and make them realise you have other options. In contrast, if your alternative is very weak, you hope your negotiation partner is not aware of this. Knowing your BATNA and analysing that of the other side is among the most basic of negotiation preparation tools. Having done so, you can say with confidence that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.
“The next time you walk away from the table, be prepared to walk away from the table” –Harvey Spectre, SUITS
Your BATNA, in other words, allows you to walk away from the table. Except… when your BATNA is actually your WATNA: the Worst Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. There are situations when your BATNA is either non-existent or so bad that the acronym is best altered. In the Brexit debate, Therese May until recently used BATNA logic to argue that “no deal is better than a bad deal” (she has backed away from this since a no-deal Brexit became an all too real possibility, obtaining an extension from the EU). In early 2017, well before the negotiations had started, she made clear she was prepared to walk away from the table.
While sounding tough can be helpful in certain negotiation circumstances, it can have the opposite effect if the other side knows your BATNA equals your WATNA. One of the many consequences of a no-deal Brexit is that the UK and the EU trade services and goods on WTO terms. In the words of former WTO Director General Pascal Lamy: “The [EU] internal market is the top league. The WTO is the bottom.” No deal therefore means immense costs for both sides. The UK and the EU both know the economic but especially the political costs of a hard Brexit are a frontal blow in the UK compared to a significant but shared burden amongst the EU 27. Therefore, “no deal is better than a bad deal” is threatening to cut off your nose to spite your face.