The Cultural Sources of British Hard Bargaining


The British approach to the Brexit talks

Another day, another round of Brexit negotiations. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, UK prime minister Boris Johnson has committed to driving a hard bargain of the EU, setting out unrealistic expectations, signalling the UK is prepared for ‘no deal’, launching parallel negotiations with the United States, and adopting a bullish rhetoric towards Brussels. This follows the hard bargaining strategy adopted by his predecessor Theresa May, which involved many of the same strategic: Threats to walk away from the table, Eurosceptic rhetoric, the claim that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, coupled with demands that would never have been met by Brussels.

The failure of hard bargaining might be one of the few valuable lessons from Theresa May’s (mis-)handling of the negotiations on the terms of British withdrawal: Claims to support a ‘no deal’ Brexit were not viewed as credible, unrealistic expectations established red lines which could not be rowed back from, hard-line Eurosceptic rhetoric undermined trust so heavily that the EU sought additional safeguards in the resulting agreement, the failure of which to live up to the promised outcome of the hard-line approach ensured its rejection (three times) in Parliament.

One reason is that hard bargaining only works well when conducted from a position of strength. From a position of weakness, threats do not appear credible, and high demands appear unjustifiable. Without the requisite clout, hard bargaining is either futile, or damaging, depending on the risk to one’s reputation of having one’s approach fail to succeed.

And the UK, to put it bluntly, is the less powerful actor in these negotiations: The EU27 has a far larger combined economy than the UK, greater expertise and bureaucratic capacity when it comes to international negotiations, control of the withdrawal process – through the ability to extend Article 50 or consent to an extension of the transition period – and, perhaps ironically, is more unified in its goals than the UK itself.

The EU is able to withstand a no deal Brexit in a way the UK is not. And the UK has few alternatives to this outcome, since most of the rest of the world opposed Brexit and has promised to prioritise their relations with the EU. The much-vaunted free trade agreement with the US, meanwhile, will come at a hefty cost, and might not pass the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

Why, then, does the UK continued to drive a hard bargain in the Brexit negotiations, even as its relative weakness becomes more evident, and the failures associated with hard bargaining begin to stack up?

We argue that a number of sources of British hard bargaining are cultural – that is, they are rooted in the norms of the UK’s political environment and its relations with its European partners which are long-lasting and which continue to impact on how the UK perceives the negotiations, irrespective of its objective bargaining power.

Drawing on interviews conducted in Brussels and London during 2017 and early 2018, we suggest a number of sources of British hard bargaining which are rooted in cultural factors rather than simply in the domestic political environment of the UK.


The cultural sources of hard bargaining

To begin with, perceptions are important. British politicians view their country as more powerful than it actually is, a misconception with a lengthy pedigree – consider the Suez Crisis in this respect – and are prone to overestimate the UK’s bargaining capabilities. Discourses of a ‘great global Britain’ and ‘concentric circles’ of British influence reinforce these misperceptions. The predictable result is the adoption of a harder bargaining strategy than is warranted for an actor far weaker than the EU27 combined.

Moreover, British politicians are not used to compromising with Europe. Successive rounds of treaty negotiations – which the UK has stormed in with demands for rebates and opt-outs – have generally resulted in concessions for the British. This is perhaps unsurprising, since the demands of such a powerful member state as the UK have needed to be taken into account during successive moments in the integration process. But it has reinforced the idea that hard bargaining tends to be rewarded.

And then there is the lack of meaningful socialisation. British membership of the EU – as has been noted by many – has been justified on largely instrumental terms. Unlike ‘the six’, or newly democratic nations, membership for the UK meant greater prosperity and greater international influence. The kind of normative bonds necessary for developing a shared worldview, which would have underpinned the search for compromise, were thus never created between the UK and its EU partners.

Then there are aspects of British politics which lend themselves to hard bargaining. For one thing, the Westminster system is more adversarial. Politicians cut their teeth in debating societies and this tradition of uncompromising engagement is carried on in the legislature, with the benches of the British Parliament arranged in opposing fashion. Moreover, single-party majority government is the norm in the UK, and British politicians do not take easily to the kind of compromises required of coalition government.

Ideology is also a factor, notably that held by a number within the governing Conservative party. The ideology of conservatism undergirds hard bargaining in two respects: First, most conservatives tend to be realists when it comes to external relations, and to venerate the demonstration of strength as a precondition for negotiating success in response. Second, conservatives tend to be more individualist, and this competitive worldview lends itself to driving a harder bargain.


More of the same?

Hard bargaining is not a rational strategy mandated by the UK’s relative power positions, nor a mere performance for domestic audiences, but is rather rooted in a number of cultural factors specific to the UK and its relationship with Europe, each of which push in the direction of a harder bargaining strategy.

In fact, the cultural sources of hard bargaining in the UK context are somewhat overdetermined, given Britain’s weak socialisation into European norms, its historical experiences of hard bargaining, perceptions of British power and prestige, its conflictual political institutions, and the (present) dominance of right-wing ideologies based on individualism and realist visions of statecraft.

But this does not mean Johnson will be any more successful than was Theresa May in deploying strategies linked to hard bargaining, since he will face the same constraints as May: The UK threat to withstand a no deal Brexit is not credible, Britain stands to lose far more than the EU, and unmeetable demands will ultimately harm the UK more than they will Brussels.

In fact, the upshot of highlighting the cultural sources of hard bargaining is that it exposes the biases ultimately responsible for the choice of a sub-optimal bargaining strategy. But these are deeply rooted. Irrespective of the utility of hard bargaining, expect more of the same in the coming months.


This blog draws on the JCMS article Negotiating Brexit: The Cultural Sources of British Hard Bargaining.



Benjamin Martill, University of Edinburgh





Uta Staiger, UCL European Institute