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Why multilateral negotiation is so difficult

My Times column on the underwhelming results of the climate conference and Britain’s renegotiation with the European Union:


There’s an uncanny similarity between the climate negotiations that climaxed in Paris at the weekend and David Cameron’s European Union reform negotiations, which continue in Brussels this week. The original aims of both plans were far bolder than the outcome. Multilateral negotiation, however well intended, really is one of the great flops of the modern world.

Have you ever sat down with ten friends and tried to agree where to go to dinner? Even with everybody saying, “No, it’s fine, you decide”, it usually proves frustratingly difficult to agree. Now imagine that instead of being helpful, everybody is looking after his or her own interest. Donald knows of a good Polish restaurant, Narendra prefers Indian, Jinping likes Chinese, Barack wants a hot dog, Vladimir is vegan, Angela recommends Wurst, François insists there must be crème brûlée and Dave has a craving for fish and chips. And then imagine that there are 28 people in the room. Or 195. The larger the group, the harder it is going to be to decide on anything.

The great Paris climate treaty is a world away from what was promised just four years ago. In Durban in 2011, world leaders solemnly agreed — after 17 years of trying — that they would definitely commit to legally binding limits on emissions for all countries in the world no later than 2015. They reached an agreement at the weekend only by abandoning this goal altogether.

True, the agreement’s champions are claiming that it is legally binding after all, but this is just verbal sophistry: what’s legally binding is that each country must come up with its own voluntary, “intended” plan — in five years’ time. The 2C limit of warming must also now be obeyed, but this is meaningless. At the rate warming is happening, and on the basis of what we know about climate sensitivity, that threshold is many decades away, and depends on many unknown factors.

What world leaders have actually signed us up to is: voluntary emission limits with no enforcement mechanism, voluntary progress reviews and voluntary contributions to a trillion-dollar green climate fund. Nothing is binding except that each country must resubmit its voluntary national goal every five years and even that does not apply to the G77 developing nations.

After four years any country can opt out with a year’s notice. Plus, just in case anybody gets any ideas, there is a clause effectively banning countries from suing each other for failing to cut emissions: “Article 8 of the Agreement does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.” The whole thing is just a statement of promises.

World leaders essentially solved the problem of where to go to dinner by changing the topic of conversation to how much they would all like to go to dinner. On this they were all triumphantly agreed. For the poor people of the world, the vagueness of the Paris agreement is good news: it means development can continue, making them less vulnerable to all harms, including weather. Those who think climate change is a huge threat should be worried, but those of us who think climate change is not such a big threat should still be concerned about just how bad the world would be at responding when a really big collective-action problem comes along: mega-volcano, alien invasion, etc.

The dinner plans of David Cameron and his 27 fellow European Union leaders are in no better shape. The prime minister promised a “complete opt out from the Charter of Fundamental Rights” in 2009, promised in his Bloomberg speech in 2013 “fundamental change” and “treaty change”, and promised just a year ago that “we want EU jobseekers to have a job offer before they come here”.

None of this is now on the table, and he is reduced to various demands that boil down to four vague requests: to protect the single market for non-euro countries, to boost competitiveness by setting targets for red-tape reduction, to exempt the country from “ever-closer union” and to restrict European Union migrants’ in-work benefits.

The first three are sufficiently vague to be easily circumvented by determined Europe-integrators. The fourth is proving indigestible for several member states. Since this measure would do little to slow within-EU migration, which is driven chiefly by our strong economy, our vibrant jobs market and, looking ahead, our high living wage, even this is a pyrrhic defeat that will make little difference.

In the case of the European Union, it is not just that there are 28 diners trying to decide where to eat, but that there are others interfering in the decision: the European parliament, with its obsessive insistence that more Europe is the answer to every problem.

But Mr Cameron’s team will no doubt learn from Laurent Fabius’s presentation of the Paris climate treaty how easy it is, with a mostly pliant media, to portray a humiliating damp squib as a mighty victory against all odds. So next February when heads of state finally agree at 2 in the morning to some non-binding (and probably insincere) words about limiting European integration to just two degrees of “ever closer union”, expect hosannas of excitement.

The dinner problem is of course the chief reason that the European Union is in such a mess: it is run through multilateral negotiation. Its dismal failure to deal with the Mediterranean economic depression, the migration crisis, the continent’s declining economic competitiveness and the bias against innovation are all symptoms of a group who cannot decide where to eat, so end up going nowhere. In that sense, the only hope is ever closer union for those who wish, and greater independence for those who don’t.

Agreements reached in the glare of publicity by scores of world leaders do not have a great track record: remember Versailles. For a sharp contrast, cast your mind back to October 1986 in a white, wooden house on the outskirts of Reykjavik where two men (Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev) almost reached agreement to rid the world of nuclear weapons, going far beyond their original negotiating positions. There is no way that would have been remotely feasible with 28 people in the room, or 195. Multilateral negotiation, whether over European economic policy, climate mitigation or world trade, really has been a spectacular failure. Do let us stop pretending otherwise.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times