Cameron needs some basic lessons in diplomacy

The PM has turned the EU negotiations into a one man show


David Cameron’s mismanagement of the EU negotiations has handed significant gains to the ‘Leave’ campaign. With just 24 hours before European ministers need to reach an agreement, the prime minister should learn from other British politicians who have negotiated complex deals with far more intelligence. 

Last week, as part of the Young Leaders UK initiative, I met Baroness Catherine Ashton. As high representative for Foreign Affairs and Security policy in the EU, Ashton brokered a landmark deal between the Serbian and Kosovar prime ministers, and mediated the 2013 nuclear disarmament deal with Iran.

Ashton offered us five leadership lessons, which would serve Cameron well in his negotiations with the EU.

Lesson 1: Lead from behind

Ashton argued that unless you work alongside people, others will not ‘own’ the agreement and it will fail. When brokering the deal between Kosovo and Serbia, she avoided any credit for herself and made the agreement about the two countries.

Conversely, Cameron has turned the negotiations into a one man show. Laura Kuenssberg found few Conservatives outside Cameron’s immediate circle knew what was happening in the negotiations. Moreover, after the draft EU deal was published, he chose to make a speech on his own rather than presenting to the House of Commons.

This has led to a decline in Cameron’s own approval ratings (his support has dropped seven points in the last three months to 31 percent) and threatens to affect the ‘Remain’ campaign, as people (six out of 10 according to recent polling) have lost faith in his ability to get a good deal.

Lesson 2: Collaboration is the priority

When Ashton was negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, she put collaboration between parties above other problems – including Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

However, many argue that Cameron has attempted to unilaterally force changes on the EU. As Natalie Nougayrède notes, he began his negotiation plans with promises of a ‘full-on treaty change’ – against EU protocol and the interests of other states.

Yesterday, instead of meeting all leaders of parties in European Parliament – as was originally planned – Cameron met only a few parties, excluding some of the those presenting the biggest obstacles to an agreement, such as Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen.  

Domestically, Cameron is also failing to collaborate with competing groups who could make the difference in the referendum. The ‘Leave’ side feel he has purposefully disrupted their campaign. Meanwhile he has failed to bring groups together on the ‘Remain’ side. For example, he has not engaged with Labour voters who are more likely to vote to stay part of the EU than Conservative voters.

Lesson 3: Practice quiet diplomacy

Ashton claims diplomacy is not about ‘shouting and fighting’ – and something has gone wrong if it is. This approach was fundamental to her being able to visit Mohamed Morsi in 2013 before any other western diplomat.

Unfortunately, this advice may be too late for Cameron, who undermined quiet diplomacy when he called a referendum. The ‘Leave’ campaign is busy espousing every problem with Europe – both real and fictional – without much consideration of Britain’s future outside the EU, while the ‘Remain’ campaign is, too often, shouted over.

Lesson 4: Know what you stand for

Ashton says this was important throughout her career – both in the UK and then in the EU – because she never had to be brave to be consistent.

This, again, may be too late. Ashton herself argued that part of the reason behind the referendum was not principle but party politics. The issue of the EU is the most divisive and, therefore, most difficult issue for the Conservative party. The desire to avoid making a difficult decision about the EU party led the prime minister to take a complex issue to a yes/no vote.

Moreover, he has changed what needs to happen to stay in the EU. He fought for four criteria which he has not achieved in the form he sought them. Now he claims to have succeeded despite widespread criticism.

Lesson 5: Know who to trust

Ashton’s last piece of advice might be the most important. She argues that, in a world of imperfect information, we must seek sound advice from those we trust. As Cameron loses control of his Cabinet and many of his supporters argue he has failed, perhaps he should seek sounder advice. 

Cameron should be guiding the UK through this decision safely instead of promising the world then facing reality. He must work with Europe to ensure that Britain stays in the EU, where workers and consumers have their rights ensured.

Abigail Watson is a research intern at the Legatum Institute

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