Formal negotiation takes place first at a technical level in Council working groups. Here, officials from all the Member States and the Commission, chaired by the Presidency, seek to resolve as many of the issues as possible. When they have achieved all they can, the dossier will be passed up to COREPER (the Committee of Permanent Representatives) and then to Ministers in the Council for final agreement (or referral back for more work).
Here are the key things you need to remember if you want to be a successful negotiator:
- You should have a clear, prioritised strategy, agreed by Ministers. Ideally this will have already informed your lobbying activities.
- Be clear about the outcomes you are trying to achieve, the areas of national interest that you want to promote and protect, and the principles you want to see applied. Develop some awareness of potential fall-back options and try to give your negotiators as much flexibility as possible. Be aware that under QMV it may not be possible to protect all your interests in a complex negotiation, so that there may be occasions when Ministers decide to vote against a proposal. And keep close to the Cabinet Office at all stages of the negotiation, as the secretariat to the European Affairs Committee plays a key role.
- Ensure excellent communication between negotiators on the ground and the policy leads in London. They must never stray beyond the ministerially agreed mandate.
- You may not personally believe in European integration. But overt Euroscepticism can raise hackles in Brussels. However, this doesn’t mean that the national interest doesn’t matter. There is generally a great deal of willingness to accommodate particular national difficulties. Wherever possible, back up your arguments with facts – often obtained through national consultation.
- Be aware of the dynamic of the negotiation. The very beginning is usually the time for declarations of principle, but things move quickly into discussions of detail. As the process accelerates and the pressure to reach agreement grows it becomes almost impossible to introduce new elements or to reopen points already agreed.
- Know when to give up on a point that is of little real importance. Multiple interventions on minor points of detail can quickly exhaust the patience of others around the table, and can often best be dealt with by a quiet word with the Presidency or the General Secretariat.
- Try to keep a feel for that intangible but vital commodity, negotiating capital. Making concessions on items you have portrayed as important to you earns you capital. Winning a point (or even fighting it too hard) spends it.
- Aim to maintain your informal contacts and use them between formal sessions and, where appropriate, in the margins of those sessions too. Generally, the best way to garner support is to float an idea informally first, then, when you have secured sufficient support (usually involving the Presidency and, if at all possible, the Commission), raise it in a formal session.
Don’t forget that what you are negotiating is law. Keep close contact with your lawyers to make sure the text really does mean what you think it does. They can also help you keep in mind how the text before you will be turned into national law. Negotiation and transposition are not separate processes, and the need for fair but effective enforcement must be addressed whilst directives are being negotiated.