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Brexit negotiations and the 'ticking clock'

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

In a series of guest blogs for PolicyDepartment, negotiation expert and MD of BrassTacks Negotiation Training Gareth Roberts reveals the top 3 banana skins for Brexit negotiators. In Part 2, he explores the pros and cons of using time as leverage. Recap by reading Part 1 of the series on the true nature of negotiating power

Young children are experts at executing the negotiating tactic of total non-cooperation until a key demand is met. Parents dealing with a crying toddler spread-eagled across the aisle of their local supermarket – perhaps with a steady stream of tut-tutting passers-by cranking up the pressure to just put the Mars bars in the trolley – will attest to how effective this tactic can be.

If you believe the UK media narrative, EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier is a big fan of this approach, recently stating that UK concessions on fisheries were a “non-negotiable pre-condition to grant access to our market of 450 million citizens” and directing his negotiating team not to progress other areas of discussion until this concession had been made.

Barnier has form in this area, famously stalling progress on the Withdrawal Agreement until the UK agreed to pay the EU a “divorce bill”.

In the interest of balance, it is worth pointing out that Barnier accuses the UK side of a “bad tactic” in deliberately postponing the negotiation of “issues that matter most for the Europeans”, going on to state that “they didn’t want to cope with them until now”.

Whichever interpretation is accurate, and whether a policy of omerta is really followed to the letter by EU negotiators behind closed doors, there are significant risks and benefits to stalling negotiations in the face of a deadline.

On the plus side, if your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) is attractive and you judge your counter party to be in a position of weakness due to time pressure, this can be an excellent way of gaining concessions without offering up anything in return.

Furthermore, if you do eventually signal a willingness to concede on your non-negotiable pre-condition, the counter party may be so relieved that they offer significant concessions just to get the process moving again. Professional negotiators call this tactic deploying an irritant and, used correctly when the other side are time-pressured, it is highly effective.

It is unlikely that Barnier considers his fisheries stance to be an irritant in the purest sense, but he is no doubt aware that UK frustration on lack of progress could create an emotional energy that might be used to the advantage of the EU as deadline day draws closer.

So, what's the risk? Apart from souring the relationship between negotiators (nobody likes time-based tactics deployed against them), this approach requires bullet-proof confidence in how your counterpart sees their BATNA in the face of an impending deadline. Misreading how the other side view the situation is an easy mistake made by even the most experienced negotiators and, as we shall see in the final banana skin, how we define the “other side” can be another source of negotiation pain. Don't miss the concluding post in this series, where Gareth looks at how 'bad bosses can wreck negotiations' and what this means for Brexit.

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This article appeared originally as a guest blog on and is republished here with permission.


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