With Theresa May’s failure to pass the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons, Brexit has entered a phase common to many intractable conflicts in world politics.
There is now a three-way standoff across all of the UK’s political parties over how to break the impasse. One group will accept the withdrawal agreement in its current form, another wants a harder Brexit up to and including a “no deal” outcome, and the third wants a much softer Brexit (or no Brexit at all), where as much as possible of the political and economic status quo can be preserved.
None of these factions can apparently gain enough support to win a majority in parliament. The UK now seems to be in classic conflict resolution territory, with a form of mediated dialogue an obvious next step in the process.
The main political parties are currently talking past one another. May and Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, are setting down pre-conditions and exchanging letters while maintaining that they are listening to each other. It is a dialogue of the deaf where their conflicting positions are dominating their underlying needs and interests.
In other conflict situations, calling on a third party to facilitate dialogue has helped to mediate and explore common interests.
Nearly 30 years ago, one doyen in the field of conflict resolution, William Zartman, introduced the concept of the “mutually hurting stalemate”, accompanied by “looming catastrophe”. This is the situation the UK finds itself in today over Brexit.
There is a mutually hurting stalemate between Leavers and Remainers over Brexit, with public opinion and the main political parties fundamentally split and weakened to the point that nobody is capable of advancing their positions. The looming catastrophe is of course the possibility of no-deal Brexit – and the cliff edge of leaving without a transition period on March 29, the day currently set into law for the UK’s departure from the EU.
Reaching a consensus
Within this context, May has begrudgingly accepted the idea that dialogue with her political opponents is necessary. Reaching difficult compromises in parliamentary democracies should be possible in principle, as political elites realise the impact of electoral and judicial accountability. Yet, there is a key impediment in reaching consensus within Westminster.
Unlike continental European political systems, Westminster politics lacks the key institutional incentives to ensure moderation. The most politically stable EU countries elect their MPs through proportional representation, which is more likely to lead to multi-party legislatures. Each party, even the largest ones, must reach out to allies to form a credible coalition after elections. In Germany, the Netherlands or Finland the norm is for no single party to govern by itself and therefore party leaders are dependent on each other.
Initiating an honest debate on institutional reform that can move the country beyond the first-past-the-post electoral system is likely to induce moderation. In the very short-term, it could even provide incentives for constructive compromises within segments of the Conservative and Labour parties, even if their leaderships fail to do so.
In mutually hurting stalemates, third-party mediators can provide the space for options to be opened up, for ideas to be discussed without preconditions and for movement to take place without it looking like the surrender of one party to another. The starting point of mediation is that third parties can sometimes help initiate the process of dialogue and agreement, even in the knowledge that not all conflicts can eventually be resolved. In the Middle East, this happened in 1993 with the Norwegian NGO Fafo, which facilitated contacts between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organisation when they could not meet publicly.
In Northern Ireland, an MI6 go-between Michael Oatley, code named the “mountain climber” and Derry-based business man Brendan Duddy, connected the British government and Provisional IRA through a back channel for years before formal peace negotiations began. This back channel provided a vital third-party mechanism for both sides to determine if there was any common ground between them.
This sort of proxy mediation by senior political or civil society figures in the UK might be the way forward for May and Corbyn given the current impasse between the two. A third party, such as a committee of senior parliamentarians, could help their camps move away from their adversarial positions to determine if there is sufficient overlap in their underlying interests. Although essentially a voluntary process, the parties could either retain control over the outcome, or accept binding arbitration over the final result.
The territorial dispute between Guatemala and Belize over their border is one of the latest global binding arbitration cases. In a 2018 referendum Guatemala opted to put the case before the International Court of Justice, and Belize will hold a similar referendum in April 2019. In the case of Brexit, such binding arbitration could involve a citizens’ jury.
Other options for the involvement of third parties could involve repeated referendums on different Brexit options, similar to those that take place in Switzerland or Ireland, with independent committees deciding on the sequence and wording of questions. Or if everything else fails, the make-up of an arbitration committee could be appointed by way of a lottery.
Such mediation mechanisms are not “the solution”. Rather, they allow conflicting parties to find their own solutions and to communicate effectively to determine if they share sufficient common interests to form the basis for agreement. But given the importance of the outcome of the Brexit process for everyone concerned, in the UK, Ireland and the rest of Europe, professional expertise in mediation seems desperately needed.