Anyone who has been involved in any kind of negotiation knows that there comes a time when reason, logic, goodwill and self-interest all fly out of the window.
The feeling develops that the other side is being utterly unreasonable, disingenuous and maybe even dishonest. They are making promises they do not intend to keep because they claim it is unnecessary to make them legally binding.
Words like ‘don’t you trust us?’ start to be uttered. The more insistent the calls for trust, the more trust breaks down.
At that point, anger and frustration take over. People walk out of the room or start proposing things that are harmful to the negotiation and even to their own self-interest. But at that point, the only thing that seems to matter is getting one over the other side.
I have been in business negotiations where people, having reached this stage, were proposing things that would cost them many millions. But they didn’t care. What became more important was their ego and showing that they would not be pushed around by the other side.
Have we reached that stage in the Brexit negotiations? Theresa May has, to her credit, so far kept her professional cool. She has tried to avoid picking a fight with any of the opposing factions all of which are pushing for diametrically opposed outcomes.
But tempers are starting to fray. It is not hard to imagine a time when everyone throws their hands up in the air and says: “Well, if you won’t budge, then we’ll all just go for a no deal exit – let’s see how you like that.”
The Irish backstop is, of course, the main remaining sticking point – though it is not clear that if that can be resolved, the hardline Eurosceptics will not find something else to complain about.
A no deal outcome would not help the Irish government. It will be put in the disastrous position of being the one to have to establish the infrastructure of a hard border with all that it entails. Yet, even faced with this self-harming eventuality, it continues to insist that there is no room for re-negotiation.
The EU is also being a little disingenuous. It complains that the British government is now renaging on a deal that it has agreed to. But such a deal was always subject to ratification by the British parliament – and that is not forthcoming.
When the Lisbon Treaty was agreed by all governments in the European Council, it was subsequently rejected by a number of parliaments or referendums. The EU went back and modified the treaty to make it more broadly palatable.
True, the context was different. That was a negotiation between member states. This is a negotiation with a country that is planning to leave. Nevertheless, the precedent is there that initial agreements can be renegotiated if they are rejected by parliaments or the people.
From the UK perspective, the backstop is unappetising. It would put the UK in an impossible position. Any future government would be negotiating a trade agreement with a sword hanging over its head. Failure to agree to any condition demanded by the EU would mean an everlasting backstop.
The EU’s response has been ‘trust us when we say that it is our intention that the backstop is intended to be temporary’ but remains unwilling to make clear what that means or to give that intention legal force.
The UK, for its part, wants to maintain an open border but has no viable proposals of how to do that without a backstop or some equivalent mechanism.
We are reaching an impasse. And the EU is right when it says that it is not clear how further delay will lead to resolution of the essentially unresolvable.
I fear that a no deal Brexit may be closer than many of us would like to think. And it will almost certainly be the outcome if perceived intransigence on either side leads to anger and frustration taking over. We are perilously close to that point.
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