The breakthrough in the UK’s relations with the EU over Northern Ireland demonstrates yet again that there is no substitute for conducting negotiations with respect and dignity, building relationships with counterparts, being honest and frank about difficult issues, searching for common ground, making appropriate concessions, focusing on real interests rather than posturing over positions and, as Ursula von der Leyen put it, being prepared to “listen to each other’s concerns”.

It all seems so simple. Yet reading the recent account by Stefaan de Rynck, Michel Barnier’s aide, of Brexit negotiations conducted by Boris Johnson and Lord Frost, his envoy, one is left in despair at the incompetent, confrontational and self-defeating strategy in earlier talks, resulting in adverse outcomes for the UK.

It has been said that, at last, there are adults in the room. Brexit didn’t need to be handled badly. But political antagonism and misplaced populism led to an us-and-them culture and an assumption that the EU would bow to UK demands. The EU carefully managed its strategy and stuck to its principles.

British negotiators, with a few exceptions, flustered and blustered in the false belief that this was an effective approach. Skilled negotiators know differently. The Scottish government’s relationship with its Westminster counterpart has, in recent years, appeared rather fractious. There are exceptions and, behind the scenes, officials will have been working collaboratively. But, on both sides, too often we have seen obstruction or disregard.

There is an opportunity for a reset. Whoever is elected first minister, facing the reality that a referendum is not a significant short-term possibility, can extend an olive branch to the UK parliament, offering to build stronger relationships and use established dispute resolution mechanisms to address difficulties. None of that needs to be viewed as capitulation and leaves open the prospect of constitutional change.

Paradoxically, by creating a culture of greater strategic co-operation, such an approach may ultimately enable a transition to an arrangement that meets the interests of all concerned. It would be hoped, and expected, that Westminster would draw on the example of the EU negotiations and reciprocate. To some, all of this may seem naive. However, the prime minister, to his credit, has shown what can be done. The real test is not whether the outcomes are perfect. It’s whether they are at least marginally better than the alternative. On that, there should be little doubt.


John Sturrock, The Times, Wednesday 1 March 2023



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