Robert Tombs Robert Tombs

Lost in translation | 19 October 2017

When it comes to negotiation, the French and the British are worlds apart

If Michel Barnier and David Davis, in their regular dialogue of the deaf, seem to be inhabiting different mental universes, that is because they are. The British and French have often found each other particularly difficult to negotiate with. Of course, Barnier represents not France but the EU, and he has a negotiating position, the notorious European Council Guidelines, on which the veteran British diplomat Sir Peter Marshall has recently commented that ‘I have never seen, nor heard tell of, a text as antipathetic to the principle of give and take which is generally assumed to be at the heart of negotiation among like-minded democracies’. But, as a senior German politician recently commented off the record, its most important clause is the one that says it can be ‘adjusted’. This is the sort of language the British understand, the language of bargaining. But that is not how the French understand negotiation or texts, and alas for Davis, he has to deal with a Frenchman.

We have been meeting this problem for at least two centuries. The most damaging occasion was when the British encountered a far more formidable duo than Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker: Napoleon Bonaparte and his foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, atheist bishop turned tricky politician. In 1802, to end a long and indecisive war, the two sides had signed the Treaty of Amiens, best remembered for Gillray’s cartoon showing William Pitt and Bonaparte cutting themselves slices of the globe.

This compromise could have given Europe a generation of peace. But after a few months of wrangling and bad temper, relations broke down, and 13 years of bloody and devastating conflict ensued. Napoleon tried to destroy the British economy by stopping its trade with Europe. Britain retaliated, evaded the restrictions, and hugely increased its global trade. The saga ended at Waterloo, and the defeated Napoleon blamed ‘all my wars on England’.

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