14 March 2020

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been announced that the second round of face-to-face talks on the UK’s new relationship with the EU, due to take place in London next week with the arrival of an EU delegation of over 100 trade experts, has been cancelled. Video-conferencing has been officially suggested as a possible alternative.

In the discussion of the prospects for an increase in the use of video-conferencing in diplomacy in the last edition of my textbook, published in 2015, I acknowledged that it had some advantages, notably by saving the time and expense of travelling and – in contrast to telephone diplomacy – enabling the use of body language. I should have added that it also spared arguments over venue. At the time, however, there was little or no evidence that it was actually being used to any significant degree in inter-state negotiations, and I poured cold water on its prospects in this sphere. This was not surprising, I argued, chiefly because it provided opportunities neither for the relief of tension by gracious social ritual and acts of hospitality, nor for corridor diplomacy, where real breakthroughs are sometimes made. I added that video-conferences were actually anti-diplomatic because, by leaving delegations at home, they were left under the intimate influence of their constituencies and, therefore, in the position in which they were least able to offer concessions.

The current pandemic, fostered by the exceptional infectiousness of the new Corona virus, now looks as if it might put my argument to serious test, not least in the case of the current Brexit negotiations. After all, the leading negotiators on both sides already know each other well, and the urgency of the need to make progress should make both parties determined to make video-conferencing work. For the reasons mentioned above, however, my guess is that neither party would be foolish enough to press for exclusive reliance on this method. In this connection it is significant that the Financial Times reports British officials as suggesting that the negotiations could only ‘partially continue’ through video-conferencing, plus audio; and that Brussels sources believed (somewhat implausibly) that the need for joint working on legal texts made face-to-face talks unavoidable. Fortunately, Brussels and London are not geographically far apart, so no great health risks should be involved in small numbers of experts flitting backwards and forwards. In addition, the UK retains a major diplomatic mission in Brussels and the EU has one in London. By means of rapid telecommunications, these might easily be provided with the specialist advice from home required for them to play a greater role in the negotiations. I hope that we shall see all of these vehicles for diplomacy being used in tandem. What the division of labour between them is likely to be and what degree of any success will be attributed to video-conferencing will be most interesting to observe. A close eye should also be kept on the format of the Joint Committee established to follow up the Withdrawal Agreement 2020 (see Article 164 and Appendix VIII in vol. 2).

For update on this blog, see The Guardian, 27 April 2020.

5 May 2020: The first round of US-UK trade talks, due to commence next week and last for a fortnight, is also to take place by means of video-conferencing. Subsequent rounds are planned to be held at roughly six week intervals. With delegations 100-strong on both sides, it is not surprising that the British Embassy in Washington has said that this method will be employed only until it is safe to travel.