An inside view of what’s going on behind closed doors in Brexit talks | Brexit

Raoul Ruparel was Theresa May’s special adviser on Europe during the first round of Brexit negotiations.

Here he talks negotiating tactics, strategies, how exhaustion in the room will play out and how the former prime minister recovered from the lowest point in negotiations when she was humiliated in Salzburg.

How much time is left?

“Both sides have got themselves into an ideological corner and are struggling to get out,” he says.

If a deal is not struck by 11 December time is probably up. “If it goes past the council meeting on Thursday, if you can’t get anything to unlock the impasse by then, you might have a few days beyond but if it goes into December 14, 15, 16, it’s hard to see it being salvaged.” The legal text does not have to be finalised by Thursday but the outline breakthrough solution does.

What will negotiators be doing at the 11th hour?

“Ultimately, the red lines and the constraints are set up a level above so you sort of do the best with the framework and working with it.

“There will be some frustration, having to go this route yet again. They’ve been going round in circles on these issues for months. But we also have to remember at this stage, the people in the room are united in the aim of wanting to land a deal and the difficulties tend to be with people outside the room. That makes the atmosphere slightly, slightly more positive for everyone. So while I think the officials will be tired frustrated, quite tense and feeling the pressure, they are ultimately working towards a common goal.

“There will be plusses and minuses. They’ve been in the weeds of this stuff for a year and that means you’re obviously very attached to your negotiating position and it’s sometimes hard to step back and see the bigger picture. But equally because you are exhausted, you want to get this done.”

What was the worst moment of the first round?

The nadir was when Theresa May was left fighting to save her Chequers Brexit plan and with it her authority as prime minister after she was ambushed at the end of the Salzburg summit in 2018 when EU leaders unexpectedly declared that her proposals would not work.

“I think both sides misread the other side. And, therefore, it was quite a low point in terms of the gap and obviously because it was at the highest level it was quite a serious.”

Two days later a clearly enraged May made a televised statement demanding the EU “show us some respect”, saying the UK could not accept a simple brushing aside by Donald Tusk. It proved the recovery point.

“I think both sides realised that this had gone wrong, and the EU realised they had gone too far as well, so there was a dialling back and rapprochement.”

Tactics – bring up old stuff.

One negotiation tactic used in trade talks is “dredging up old stuff” to try and wear the other side down on other points where you don’t want a compromise. This is exactly what Downing Street believe the EU did last week when it protested it had introduced new elements to the negotiation table at the 11th hour.

“I don’t know the exact details but I am told the reports are accurate that they reintroduced issues on the level playing field they thought was settled as a way of getting leverage somewhere else,” says Ruparel.

It forces the other side, the UK, to re-open the chapter, “bring out the old arguments explaining why this or that can’t happen and demolish their position”. In this scenario, the hope of the EU would be once it agrees the UK was right all along, it will come across as having conceded, making the UK feeling obliged to compromise on something else. “We’ve seen them deployed before in terms of dredging up old things,” says Ruparel.

Can the deal be unlocked?

“I think it’s rare that brand new ideas are brought to the table but they will be going back and looking at stuff previously discounted and might try again.”

The Irish border was an example of this. A border down the Irish Sea was mooted at the outset of the first phase but “very quickly shelved” but was dusted down at the 11th hour by Boris Johnson who was able to succeed because it was “crunch time” but also because he had momentum and support on the backbenches.

“If it was deployed at any other time in negotiations it probably wouldn’t have worked. It just happened to be the right answer at the right time,” says Ruparel.

Establishing leverage and communications weapons

Briefing politicians and the public is critical in establishing support for positions in negotiations, he says.

“The EU were much more effective than us” in the first round, briefing diplomats and holding regular press conferences and briefings for interest groups, helping establish their position as the orthodoxy in public discourse.

The Irish backstop controversy was a case in point, he says. The EU got their position out not just in communications but in their legal text long before the UK had fully rehearsed the arguments. “It was effective. They were very good at putting their hardline unreasonable positions early, making it difficult to move them off their positions.”

“The UK side has been better in this stage in trying to counter that and being on the front foot on its positions,” he says. The Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, standing up in the House of Commons declaring the UK was prepared to breach international law with the internal market bill is an example of this. While it “also has its side effects in terms of undermining trust”, said Ruparel, “it’s clearly something that they feel generates leverage for them by demonstrating the potential negatives of no deal and difficulties there might be for the EU side” in respect of Northern Ireland.




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