In Brexit talks, the parties never crafted a significant public moment for sharing any joint ambition. It took more than a year following the referendum to get into official talks.
With some protocol and a few pleasantries back and forth, a negotiation kick-off may seem far less important compared to subsequent rounds of substance that follow and the drama of deal-making and compromise at the tail end. But a good beginning is most of the battle, or at least, it determines to a significant degree how the battle will proceed. The start of any negotiation is an opportunity to state a joint ambition to create as much value as possible and stress shared over opposing interests.
Especially in talks where there is an ocean of disagreement and only an island of agreement, it is smart to start with a clear and appealing picture of that island. It is a moment to build trust and, in public sector negotiations, to signal confidence to external stakeholders. This is one reason why advanced courses in negotiation dedicate a lot of time on crafting opening statements and stressing the importance of setting the tone in those first minutes in the room.
“A good beginning is most of the battle” -English Proverb
In Brexit talks, the parties never crafted a significant public moment for sharing any joint ambition. It took more than a year following the referendum to get into official talks. But the shadow boxing got well under way almost immediately after the EU referendum with public haggling over the divorce bill, EU citizens rights and the process and sequencing of Brexit. in early 2017, well before talks commenced, Theresa May threatened to walk away from them, introducing her mantra that no deal was better than a bad deal (a mantra revoked since a no deal scenario became real in the last few months).
“I leave Downing Street 10 times more sceptical than I was before”, Jean-Claude Juncker said just prior to the talks starting that year. Both sides dug in early with the EU keen to stress the lack of clarity and speed by which the UK was coming to the table, and May keen to signal that she would be “tough” and “difficult” in negotiations. Once talks finally got underway in June 2017, the widely circulated image was that of the Barnier and Davis teams at opposite ends of a table, not a shoulder-to-shoulder image of the chiefs tackling the challenge together. If in the public’s eye, you are in the trenches well before talks commence, it is much tougher to get off to a good start.