Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Criteria Can Solve a Problem, but Delay a Difficult Conversation

By Prof. Robert C. Bordone


In recent months, the world has been transfixed by the ongoing struggle of migrants and refugees pouring into Europe in search of a better life. The flow of untold migrants into Europe has plunged the continent into a crisis it has not seen since the end of World War II as various European leaders have wrestled with the challenge of integrating these persons into their country and have contended with how many migrants each nation should take. With politicians in Germany and elsewhere calling on each European Union member state to take its “fair share” of the migrants, or to “do their part,” what stands out to me as a negotiation scholar is the perennial question related to criteria for fair distribution: what are the criteria that help us understand the meaning of “fair share?” Insisting on “fairness” is a worthy aspiration, but the devil is in the details.

Negotiation experts typically emphasize the persuasive value of using objective criteria when influencing issues of distribution in negotiation. A common piece of advice suggests that using external criteria in negotiation can serve both as a shield and a sword. By insisting that questions of distribution rely on objective criteria, negotiators can increase the likelihood that a deal will be durable and acceptable to parties over time. Of course, competing criteria exist in many situations, and much of a negotiation often revolves around determining which criteria are most relevant and trustworthy. Similarly, “fairness,” while a widely accepted norm for what makes a successful agreement, is a concept easy to bandy about in academic circles but much more challenging to pin down on the ground.

For EU member states negotiating an agreement to manage the current migration crisis, determining what is fair – identifying acceptable criteria – was incredibly complicated. Denmark’s Integration Minister argued earlier this month that that country had already accepted the second-highest total number of migrants and therefore should not need to accept any more. Presumably this was a way of suggesting that “fairness” could be determined by total number of migrants accepted. Greece, a country in dire economic straits and with a crumbling infrastructure, has contended it can take no migrants. Instead it has appealed for an additional $10 million of EU aid and has suggested that measuring state of infrastructure—the ability to absorb new migrants—should drive “fairness” on this issue.

In late September, European leaders finally came to an agreement on certain quotas to guide the acceptance of 120,000 asylum seekers across the member states. Each country’s quota was calculated based on a complex formula, using criteria such as economic strength, population, unemployment and the number of asylum applications it has approved over the last five years. (Economic strength, as measured by GDP, and the country’s population make up about 80% of that formula.) The agreement was not a consensus; four European countries held out against the deal and were eventually overruled.

On the upside, this agreement proposed acceptable criteria to determine a number and identify what “fair share” might mean in this context. Identifying objective criteria acceptable to most of the parties was successful in driving a resolution. From a negotiation perspective, we should be glad.

At the same time, I am troubled by what these acceptable criteria might have failed to resolve. I wonder whether the reliance on a formula kicked down the road a deeper and, ultimately, equally important conversation about the values and principles that hold the EU together.   As the EU has grown over the past 20 years, one wonders the extent to which the member nations have truly come together around a shared set of values and principles as much as around a set of rules and standards determined by a central bureaucracy in Brussels, one that relies on formulas and analysis to avoid harder conversations about what unity really means? What deeper values do these 28 countries share that can help them take more coordinated and pro-active action in moments of crisis? How can these nations—with vastly different histories, interests, and identities, rise above petty disagreements and work towards a common goal?

Last week’s agreement underscores the power of shared objective criteria in negotiation to both move parties toward agreement, and also, ironically, deter parties from having the harder conversation about what might be motivating the dispute itself. The hope is that last week’s agreement will not only be durable in resettling the 120,000 asylum seekers it targets, but will also serve as groundwork for even tougher challenges that the E.U. will most certainly face in the coming years. The criteria themselves are a solid start, as long as they prove to be clear and workable.

But criteria without a shared sense of purpose can only go so far. To imagine and implement effective systems for handling massive and urgent changes, the member states will need to capitalize on this pivotal moment by strengthening the European Union’s sense of itself as a union, and not just as individual actors that occasionally are called upon to “do their part.” I hope that the EU will use the current agreement not as a way to simply resolve an immediate presenting crisis, but also as an invitation to engage a deeper, difficult conversation about shared values, purposes, hopes, and dreams for a more perfect—or at least better functioning—union.

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