Managing Difficult Relationships During Brexit


Dealing with difficult people is something widespread in the field of international relations and diplomacy. Yet, managing contemporary challenges requires a good mix of people with various abilities, personalities, and temperament. One of the most complex negotiations to date is the case of Brexit, where the British government and the European Union are forced to settle on a deal as a result of Britain’s decision to leave its EU membership.

Since the British referendum in 2016, the relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU has become fraught with tension. In a televised interview with Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, he clearly demonstrated the level of mistrust and anxiety felt by bureaucrats from the negotiations when he said: "I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely.” (BBC, 2019) Naturally, the comment sparked a storm of statements from the public and government alike. For example, a response tweet from British parliamentarian Sammy Wilson stated: "It is Tusk and his arrogant EU negotiators who have fanned the flames of fear in an attempt to try and overturn the result of the referendum." Without judging either side on who is wrong or right, it is clear that the working conditions in negotiating a Brexit deal is not without is problems.

How did the overall situation escalate?

On 15 January 2019, Prime Minister Theresa May's government suffered one of the heavest parliamentary defeat when her Brexit deal failed to pass the House of Commons. With a majority vote of 202 in favour and 432 opposing the deal, the critical defeat triggered major political tensions within the UK and across the EU as May and her party spent more than two years hammering out the deal with the EU. With less than three months to go before the official deadline of 29 March 2019, the UK and EU must come up with a deal to mutually split from one another. With no deal passing through Parliament, it would be impossible to agree on a withdrawal deal that will leave either party satisfied. Michael Barnier, the EU’s Chief negotiator, said that the UK needs to make faster decisions to avoid a No-Deal Brexit. Tensions have doubled as there has been no clear sight on what the final withdrawal deal will look like, naturally placing EU and UK citizens and politicians in a difficult position.

The situation contains a very tight deadline for one of the most delicate decisions in Europe since the Second World War. As the situation currently stands, the EU will not accept re-negotiations, despite  Prime Minister May trying to convince the EU that further negotiations should be a key to a successful Brexit. If this approach fails, the UK could proceed with a No-Deal Brexit, which means that the UK will leave the EU on time, but without an agreement, that could jeopardise a high number of trade, laws and citizen safety. Another option could be to agree on a second UK referendum about the EU membership or ignire a snap election to choose a new Head of State. Neverthless, both such options could jeopardise democracy in the UK and the EU on the long run.

If Brexit negotiators are unable to proceed with a constructive dialogue, the situation between the two parties can worsen rapidly with lasting damage after the Brexit deadline. Internally, the Brexit tension has tightened when three of the British Prime Minister’s cabinet members have threatened to quit if Mrs May is unable to take No-Deal Brexit off the table. Britain’s Business Minister Richard Harrington said that, "The idea that no deal is a negotiating tool is absolutely incorrect. No-one believes it in the EU. As far as we are concerned the responsible thing is to rule it out." (Guardian, 2019)

The question then arises on how diplomats can find constructive solutions when working with and under difficult working relationships. Reflecting on the theory of international relations, we can divide people into two camps of thought: liberal/pluralism, and realism. If one communicates as a pluralist with someone from a realist camp, points of arguments may become misconstrued. They may hear what you say, but it may not seem logical to them.

In a pragmatic and simplified way, plurist politicians view Brexit as a constructive, transformative and cooperative process. However, others believe that Brexit is destructive, time-consuming and painful. When politicians from both camps negotiate with each other, points of views clash, causing tension and resentment. The Brexit conflict is solvable if politicians start to show more self-awareness and more compassion for their opponents, particularly because their citizens are in the cross fire. There are 66 million UK citizens and 1.3 million people in the UK living in other EU countries. The EU as a whole has 512 million inhabitants. In comparison, the UK parliament has 650 members. The percentage of parliamentary members within the 512 million inhabitants, it is 0.0000012695 %. If you are one of the 650 parliamentary members, their stakes are high to ensure that a political vote is in favour of their people.  

As part of diplomacy, we should show empathy for our counterparts and make decisions based on different perspectives. If we do not work like this, we face stress, anger and a variety of negative emotions. After the House of Commons defeat, Theresa May was threatened with a vote of no confidence in her leadership. Working in such environment can cause mental and physical damage for all affected persons. People start avoiding each other during daily life and only seek confrontation during decision-making points, where emotions easily escalate. Work can only get accomplished by accepting those points we sometimes strongly disagree. If you disagree entirely, you might consider resigning the position instead of keeping a conflict over an unacceptable period. In the case of the January 15th decision, neither empathy nor resignation was taken into action during the 2/1/2 years.

You can find more information on the topic of how to deal with difficult relations in the Brexit Handbook. The Handbook prepares diplomats on managing issues such as family disruption, the lack of security in regards to passports and jobs, the effects of changes made to national law to the movement of people, as well as the rise in social tension, xenophobia, and racism.