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EU's Brexit Strategy Shows How Aggressive Transparency Can Be Used To Gain The Upper Hand In Negotiations

We're big fans of transparency around here, as you may have noticed. In particular, Techdirt has repeatedly called for trade deals to be negotiated more openly to allow greater input from the public -- and less backlash when they find out what has been agreed without them behind closed doors. But a fascinating post from the Institute for Government, a UK-based think-tank "working to make government more effective", points out that aggressive transparency can also be used to gain the advantage during high-level political negotiations.

In this case it is the critical "Brexit" negotiations between the EU and the UK that will determine their future relationship if and when the UK leaves the European Union. The stakes are incredibly high: the financial implications alone run into hundreds of billions of euros. Moreover, the UK's place in the world is also at play, as it extracts itself from the biggest geopolitical bloc in an attempt to go it alone. As the post points out, the approaches taken by the EU and the UK could hardly be more contrasted:

The European Council [one of the key EU bodies setting strategy] has published its "transparency regime" for the Brexit negotiations, committing the EU to a far greater degree of transparency than anything that we have seen in the UK. It sets out the ten classes of documents that could be issued by the Council, the [European] Commission and [EU] member states, along with a default level of public disclosure for each.

The UK government, by contrast, has said rather sniffily it would not be offering a "running commentary on Brexit negotiations", and aims to keep its plans totally under wraps. The Institute for Government points out that this is a big mistake:

The EU wants to be able to control the public narrative around Brexit. Two weeks ago, the EU published its draft negotiating mandate. Its proposals on the prerogative of the European Court of Justice, the rights of EU citizens in the UK and the sequencing of the negotiations were in all the UK papers. Having taken a self-imposed vow of secrecy, Prime Minister Theresa May was unable to respond to any of the issues of substance.

In other words, 500 million Europeans are only hearing the EU's side of the story, and the EU's views on what should happen during Brexit. Theresa May's secrecy means that she cannot rebut any of the assertions, nor offer her own vision (cynics say that is because she has neither a vision nor a plan….) The post points out that the EU's approach is not naïve or simplistic, but carefully planned and nuanced -- open for this aspect, but more reticent elsewhere:

A degree of secrecy is necessary to allow negotiators the space to think innovatively, to propose and weigh potential compromises. So, the EU stops short of a commitment to total transparency. It wants talks to be open, but not wide open.

The UK on the other hand wants to run as much of the negotiations behind closed doors as possible. That may just be the preferred operating style of this government or it may be a conscious decision. Whatever the reason, it will play right into the EU's hands.

It's a perceptive analysis that adds to the already compelling reasons why such high-level talks should be open and transparent as a matter of course. It's a pity that the one person who needs to take heed of that fact -- the UK's Prime Minister -- almost certainly won't. Both she and the country she nominally controls are likely to pay a high price as a result.

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