There are plenty of similarities between the Brexit talks and UN climate talks - but what can negotiators learn from the success of the Paris deal?
For environmentalists, the most dispiriting aspect of last year's EU referendum, apart from the racism obviously, was the nagging sense of déjà vu. Here was a campaign that borrowed copiously from the climate sceptic playbook green groups had been wrestling with for decades, right down to the deployment of precisely the same spokespeople.
Inevitably there were differences between the Leave campaign and assorted inglorious efforts to oppose climate action. For one, there were respectable reasons for wanting to leave the EU, mainly relating to sovereignty, the inherent flaws within the Eurozone, and the mismanagement of mass immigration in some communities. In contrast, I'm yet to identify an argument for climate inaction that does not boil down to a sweeping dismissal of the scientific method and/or a flagrant disregard for the risks being loaded on to future decades, often with a side order of short term financial self-interest thrown in.
More pertinent still, the Leave campaign won, whereas the campaign to derail climate action has succeeded only in slowing down the transition to a low carbon economy, as evidenced by the rapid growth rates enjoyed by clean technologies and the decoupling of global economic growth and emissions.
However, the tactics deployed by Brexiteers in pursuit of victory had been pioneered by climate sceptic groups for decades. We saw the dismissal of expert opinion as part of an elitist conspiracy; the insistence on equal billing for fringe economic views, and howls of censorship on the rare occasions it was not granted; the rejection of the very concept of forecasting, coupled with the immediate embrace of any cherry picked forecasts that could be shown to match their own predictions; the shameless willingness to muddy the waters of debate with highly contestable claims (remember that £350m for the NHS?); and the age old tactic of 'teach the controversy' - a fixation on any areas of uncertainty in the opposing camp's claims to insist that because no one could be sure what would happen in the future the most high risk course available is perfectly valid.
Following the referendum, these similarities have continued. Just as climate sceptics have repeatedly abandoned their positions, glossed over their past claims, and moved on to the next line of defence - 'the climate is not changing; the climate is changing, but it is not manmade; the climate is changing it is partly manmade, but we shouldn't do anything about it' - leading Brexiteers have changed their position with breathtaking frequency, retreating from the idea the UK can pursue a 'Norway option' and retain freedom of movement, to proposals for a new trade deal, to now attempting to normalise the idea crashing out of the EU would be fine.
One of the many tragedies of Brexit for green remainers was the failure to recognise the lessons environmentalists had taken several decades to recognise when engaging with their opponents. Namely, that you have to present a positive vision alongside a realistic assessment of the risks. You have to take on your opponents' misinformation, but you also have to own the future and explain clearly why the course you are advocating is better for all. You cannot simply rely on 'project fear' and a hope people will always back the status quo, you have to generate enthusiasm and affection for your project.
Perhaps unsurprisingly after years of criticising the EU and failing to make the case for co-operation with our neighbours, it is a lesson David Cameron and his allies began to heed far too late.
But now, with Article 50 triggered, what's done is done. Barring the most convulsive of U-turns the UK is leaving the EU and embarking on two years of negotiations that will prompt a slightly different sense of déjà vu for environmentalists.
The Brexit negotiations will be the most complex and challenging multilateral international negotiations since diplomats from around the world gathered in Paris in late 2015 and, against all expectations, delivered the planet's first comprehensive climate change agreement.
Again, the parallels are not perfect. The goals of the Paris Agreement were to preserve the conditions for a functioning civilisation, and the Brexit negotiations are of primary concern to a small, rainy corner of northwest Europe. The Paris talks included every country on Earth, and the Brexit talks bring together the UK and the EU27. The Paris Summit was focused on providing a big picture framework for enabling the green industrial revolution, Brexit is in reality more complex, addressing how to unpick 40 years of shared regulation, policymaking, and trade while attempting to avoid the kind of short term economic shocks the Paris deal was never likely to spark. Paris had big, long-term ethical, human, economic, and financial considerations to weigh, while Brexit could immediately impact the lives and prosperity of millions of people and businesses.
However, there are also plenty of similarities between the two negotiations. They are both complex, high stakes, multilateral talks, tackling existential issues while being buffeted by competing interests, media pressures, and geo-political tensions. Both start with recognition of the mutual benefits that could come with delivering a workable deal, tempered by considerable ill-feeling on all sides and a reluctance to do anything that might be seen to compromise national strategic goals. Both negotiations start with the very real prospect of the talks collapsing, wreaking considerable havoc in the process. Both will be governed by the constraining principle of 'nothing is agreed until everything is agreed'.
Consequently, it would be sensible for all parties to study closely the last major international negotiation to deliver a genuinely successful outcome and see what, if anything, can be learnt. Here are a few of the relevant take-aways from that fortnight in Paris:
Focus on shared goals and areas of mutual benefit
The Paris Agreement had its genesis in a shared recognition the transition to a low carbon economy was both inevitable and desirable for all parties, and as such a global accord to help manage and accelerate that transition would benefit everyone. Whenever the talks got bogged down in the intricacies of the deal, that over-arching reality was highlighted and used to help keep key players on-board. The Paris Summit succeeded where the Copenhagen Summit failed because the big emerging economies accepted for the first time they could decarbonise without compromising development.
The Article 50 talks similarly need to reiterate time and again that an amicable divorce, comprehensive trade deal, and meaningful co-operation on issues such as security and the environment are in everyone's interests.
Build relationships, remember that tone matters
One of the more heartening aspects of the Paris Agreement was the story of how US climate envoy Todd Stern and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua forged a close and highly effective working relationship in pursuit of a deal, sharing countless meals and private phone calls in a determined effort to find common ground. Ultimately, it was the thawing of relations between the US and China on climate issues that made a deal possible, and that process owed a lot to the personal and professional approach of the diplomats involved.
The French hosts of the summit built on this spirit of co-operation and conciliation, avoiding the secret deals that had marred previous talks and steering the summit in a way that ensured countries felt involved and invested in the outcome. Insiders still recount how impeccable manners, an attempt to keep brow-beating to a minimum, and even decent food all helped ensure the talks stayed on track.
Theresa May and her European counterparts should take note.
Build in flexibility
The Paris deal was made possible because it focused on delivering a flexible framework that recognised each country's sovereignty and national circumstances, thus minimising the imposition of legal requirements and onerous mandates. It also provided clear mechanisms for the accord to evolve over time, as new technologies emerge and economic contexts evolve.
This will be far harder to do with a trade deal and exit agreement that has to cover four decades of shared regulation and countless complicated legal issues. But the principles of flexibility and the inclusion of mechanisms that allow any new deal to evolve over time is bound to make any new agreement an easier sell for all governments.
Don't neglect the 'easy stuff'
For years before Paris the UN climate talks appeared to be making negligible progress, but rather than being disheartened each year diplomats were able to finesse a deal that highlighted where encouraging steps were still being taken. Whether it was an agreement on climate funding or the development of new rules on forest offsets, officials got the stuff that could be agreed done and dusted, providing themselves with a point of agreement to refer back to when the talks got tough. The same approach was deployed in Paris, with encouraging progress on clean tech investment or carbon markets trumpeted every few days.
There is huge potential for the parties to the Brexit talks to deploy the same tactic. On issues such as environmental policy, EU citizens' rights, and security there is such a compelling case for continued co-operation the government and the EU would be wise to try and bank areas of agreement as quickly as possible.
Threats rarely work, at least in public
Any big geopolitical agreement involves leverage and a fair degree of real politik, climate negotiations are no different. But one of the lessons of the UN climate deal is that thinly veiled threats about reduced funding for those who don't co-operate or incendiary speeches about moral responsibilities are often counter-productive. Publicly try to strong-arm another party in any negotiation and you make it very hard for them to agree without massive loss of face.
It is a very simple lesson that someone really should teach Theresa May and her team of Brexiteers. The previous threat to turn the UK into an offshore tax haven went down in Brussels like a football hooligan's World War Two chant - it was thankfully notable by its absence from the Article 50 letter. But the letter did contain a similarly clunky attempt to make continued security co-operation a major part of the talks, rather than a basic moral imperative. Meanwhile, some European figures have made it harder for the UK government to broker a deal by stressing the need to ensure the Brits pay a hefty and on-going price for their departure.
Keep the awkward squad on board
One of the biggest coups for the French hosts at the Paris Agreement was their ability to keep those countries that had traditionally disrupted previous climate talks broadly on-board. They did this by involving the 'awkward squad' as much as possible, often giving them responsibilities for parts of the talks and forcing them to take ownership for the outcome.
If the British team isn't already working out which governments will present the biggest opposition to a deal and reaching out to them it does not know what it is doing.
Accept domestic realities
The Paris Agreement was made possible by the recognition that thanks to a combination of GOP intransigence and electoral gerrymandering the US Congress would never endorse a deal. As such the entire deal, right down to the final word in the text, was structured to ensure Congressional approval was not required. It was only by acknowledging that unmovable domestic reality that a workable deal was agreed that has still served to mobilise billions of dollars of investment and improve the chances of catastrophic climate change being averted.
All parties in the Brexit talks need to acknowledge there are certain red lines that really will not fly with domestic parliaments. Poland and other Eastern European states cannot approve a deal that discriminates against their citizens, the EU cannot rubberstamp a trade deal that gives the UK all the benefits of the single market without any of the obligations, and the UK seemingly cannot compromise on border controls.
But ignore the extremist fringe
However, there is a difference between accepting domestic realities and making zero effort to address self-harming domestic opposition. President Obama could have said he could not get a climate deal past Congress, was not willing to take the political flak for trying, and would be happy to walk away from the Paris talks. Instead, he acknowledged it was in America's long term interests to embrace climate action, recognised public opinion was actually in favour of action, and spent several years successfully trying to move the dial further in favour of bold climate measures. Other world leaders similarly faced down domestic climate sceptics and vested fossil fuel interests in pursuit of a deal they knew was in the national interest.
If the UK is to get a halfway decent trade deal with the UK there will come a point where Theresa May will have to break with the Brexit extremist who have been demanding an ever deeper break with our closest allies. She will have to say, "I have ended freedom of movement and I have delivered departure from the EU, but I am not willing to cut the UK off from its largest market over the shared regulation of lightbulbs."
Be willing to compromise
The Paris deal was a testament to the power of compromise. It was an imperfect deal in almost every sense, lacking sufficiently bold targets, real legislative teeth, or full environmental justice. And yet it was in many ways the epitome of a good deal: almost everyone walked away happy and no one walked away ecstatic. A deal was done that was a lot better than no deal being done.
If the Brexit talks are not characterised throughout by a spirit of compromise they can expect to fail.
So, how do we do against this little Paris-inspired check list? Frankly, not well. Currently the key parties in the Brexit talks are a long way from replicating the hard won success of the Paris deal.
In fairness, the notably more conciliatory tone May deployed today is a welcome step in the right direction and holds out some hope the government is beginning to recognise the "have our cake and eat it" approach to negotiations will never work.
The acknowledgement the UK will have to accept EU standards to access the European market and the willingness to work together on evolving future standards and regulatory frameworks is good news, especially for the UK and EU's shared environmental policy landscape. There is room in the text of the Article 50 letter for the kind of compromises and co-operation that could make an amicable departure and effective new trade deal possible.
And yet, the prospects of a good deal continue to face two immense challenges.
Firstly, the risks and benefits of an agreement for the UK and the EU are so poorly aligned it is hard to see how the UK can extract a new pact out of the bloc that does not harm its long term prospects.
Yes, both sides benefit from a continuation of free trade and both sides lose if the talks collapse, but the EU loses far less and knows that a deal that is too attractive risks the further break-up of the bloc. The UK could withhold security co-operation, deport EU nationals or turn itself in a tax haven, but such moves would be morally repugnant and massively self-harming. It is currently difficult to see how the EU can be tempted into a deal that allows the UK to retain the many economic benefits that come with tariff-free trade with the UK's largest market. Hence, Angela Merkel's rapid rejection of May's rather desperate plea for trade talks and exit talks to be conducted in parallel. There is not much to stop the EU playing hard ball. The UK government has today accepted there will be "consequences" of departure - they could yet be severe.
Hopefully cool heads will prevail, but that brings us to the second big challenge. Whereas the Paris Agreement was enabled by the bold leadership of those who were willing to face down domestic critics, the UK government has been remarkably reluctant to build a coalition in support of an effective compromise deal, instead allowing the extremists in its ranks to shape the narrative at every turn.
We are yet to see any push back from the May team against the wreckers who would scupper the UK's most important trading relationship and set about destroying environmental protections the public value dearly. Just like the climate sceptics who will never be happy until every wind turbine is razed to the ground, even if those turbines are delivering the lowest cost power available, no EU trade deal, however attractive, will ever be good enough for Eurosceptic ideologues and the Brexit press.
All of which is why those environmentalists experiencing déjà vu when looking at the Brexit talks may yet be forced to hark back to an earlier climate summit: Copenhagen 2009, the collapse of global climate negotiations, and one of the worst examples in recent history of political failure and short-sightedness in the face of the gravest of risks.
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