Brexit: who’s the referee in this boxing ring?

Mar 28


5 Responses


Helen Whitten

Posted In


Brexit: who’s the referee in this boxing ring?

Today represents another historic shift in our relationship with Europe, as Theresa May triggers Article 50.  This puts me in a reflective mood.   My childhood echoed to the reverberations of De Gaulle’s “Non” as we applied to enter the Common Market.   We finally joined in the 1970s, an era of strikes, the 3-day week, and petrol shortages.  Later, in the 1990s, I was at King’s College studying history when the Channel Tunnel opened. The Tunnel  left us less of an island nation than we were.  This made us, as does any close relationship, both stronger and yet more vulnerable.   I remember being in the middle of an essay on the Hundred Years’ War at the time and wondering what the opening of the Channel would mean for the role and security of the UK who, as that island nation, had fended off attack and occupation for so many centuries.

Much has happened since we joined, both positive yet challenging.  Many Europeans have come to live and work  in our country and vice-versa.  Deep friendships and family ties have developed.  These need to be protected.

But I worry about the way the Brexit negotiations are being set up.  Theresa May has a daunting prospect ahead of her as representative of a single country in negotiation with 27 others.  Who is going to ensure that the negotiations are fairly led?  A few years ago I trained as a mediator and as such would recommend that the talks are carried out on neutral territory, with an objective facilitator, but I have seen no sign that this is what is intended.

What a pity that leaders on both sides have allowed communications to sink to insult and a sense of win-lose rather than win-win.   What we need  is statesmanship and leadership.   The UK is not alone in some disaffection with how things were being run.   A wise EU President would have brought the member states together long ago to explore what revisions were needed in order to adapt to the context of the 21st century.    Acting early would have enabled all states to come together in a more positive and inspired frame of mind.

Instead, the parties are gathering as if they are boxers in a boxing ring.  Each in their corner pumping themselves up for the fight.   Barnier, Juncker and Tusk rattle their sabres in one corner threatening punishment, isolation and bills.  May in her corner threatens to walk out if she doesn’t get a ‘good deal’ for Britain.   I don’t see any referee.

This is surely a thoroughly dysfunctional way to start negotiations that affect millions of people in all our countries. What hope do we have if there is not a fair and objective mediator who manages these talks and negotiations?

EU negotiator Guy Hoefstadt has, just recently, talked of the emotional impact of Article 50 and its ripple throughout the peoples of all 28 states.  There are strong emotions on all sides – anger, frustration, fear, uncertainty, sadness, grief, resentment, rejection as well as excitement, relief and a sense of opportunity.  Who will help the negotiators create a safe space to express these emotions?

In the process of mediation there is a recognition that emotions need to be safely expressed before facts can be heard.   If not articulated they will filter through in words and actions rather than being safely parked having been vented and acknowledged as legitimate responses to a complex situation of fracture, for which both parties bear responsibility.

Co-creation through mediation

It concerns me greatly that no neutral mediator has been identified to facilitate this divorce in such a way that is fair to both parties.   In a marital divorce there is a well-trodden path of the law to ensure that there is an equitable result for all, practically and financially, and that children are taken care of in the most compassionate and supportive way possible.  But who will be the neutral facilitator in the divorce coming up between the EU and the UK?

A mediator helps identify positive outcomes.  The parties are encouraged to re-connect with shared vision and values and given a practical process to follow in order to work out the steps to achieve that result.  This approach transforms boxing to aikido, knowing to finding out, defending to exploring, advocacy to facilitation, proving to creating, answers to questions, winning and losing to sharing.  It is a very different, solution-focused not adversarial, approach.

Issues are identified and prioritised. A mediator also intuits what is beneath a statement, observes where there are hidden agendas or when someone is not saying something they appear to feel,  drawing people towards honesty and collaboration.   Diversity of opinion is enabled and ideas encouraged during the brainstorming phase, where many options can be shared in a non-critical way as they seek lateral solutions to problems.    Options are only analysed and discarded after a reasonable period of open-minded discussion during which the individuals are encouraged to remain impartial.

In mediation there is space for each party to have independent time with the mediator in order to explain their perspectives, needs and wants before coming together.  All that is said in those private meetings is kept confidential.  The mediator brings the parties together only when they feel each party is ready.  A safe space is provided where emotions can be vented and where each person is listened to without being interrupted.  The process is flexible, without prejudice, with each party feeling in control of whether they agree to settle for a point or not.  But it is the mediator who enables the process, who builds rapport and trust, and keeps the focus of the procedure on mutually positive outcomes.  Without this the two parties too easily arrive at win-lose arguments that get them nowhere.

In the concluding phase both parties are assisted in agreeing a mutually beneficial settlement and making an emotional and practical commitment to honour the actions and behaviours required within that agreement.

I have not seen any mention of holding the talks in a neutral space, nor of an objective facilitator being appointed in the upcoming EU negotiations.    I hope such a procedure is put in place and that those concerned with leading them remember the words of the 6th century philosopher Lao Tzu below in order to reach outcomes that take the UK and Europe forward into this unknown future in as mutually beneficial way as possible.

“The wise leader knows how to facilitate the unfolding group process, because the leader is also a process… The leader knows how to have a profound influence without making things happen… facilitating what is happening is more potent than pushing for what you wish were happening.”  


5 Responses

  1. I suggest that you write to Theresa May ASAP and cut your letter back to one page, starting with : I am trained mediator [ now retired ] and I would know if mediator has been – or will be – appointed to etc etc.

    Particularly important is your point about letting off emotions steam first.

    Ask one clear question in a short sentence. clear question

    I will edit it , if you like.

    I remember how well you restrained me at one time, and totally changed my view in half an hour on the telephone.

  2. Thank you Helen – I haven’t seen this expressed before, and of course you are absolutely right. In recent years there have been several major international problems resolved by negotiation through a mediator. Some succeed and some don’t, but it certainly helps. Is ours a case for a UN appointee as mediator perhaps. We are right on the back foot as it stands, 27 to one.

  3. Thanks for the common sense and lived experience that reminds us of well tried mediation processes that urgently need to lead us towards a win-win for both the UK and our European partners. Collaboration that acknowledges our shared values and mutual interests rather than threats and punitive retaliation as we leave.

  4. Helen. Much agree with your idea of a neutral space for negotiation. Perhaps somewhere in Switzerland. I’m not sure about applying mediation techniques
    which are designed for interpersonal problems to an international arena.

    1. Thanks David. In fact mediation techniques are frequently applied in business for mergers and acquisitions, business conflict situations between organisations and employment issues as well as interpersonal problems. So I do feel that they could be applied effectively to the Brexit talks with regard to the key principles to be agreed. More detailed talks would be necessary for creating policies once the headline principles had been agreed.

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