In Britain, where I live, we’ve been having a bit of a political crisis over the last week and a half. We went and voted to leave the European Union, and now we have to decide how exactly that’s going to work. One of the things we have to decide is what’s going to happen to all the citizens of other EU countries who live in Britain at the moment. As Britain is an EU country too, they’re currently allowed to live here. Once we leave, they won’t automatically be allowed.
Now, we could just let them stay, if we wanted to, but we haven’t committed to that yet. Apparently when we’re negotiating our new relationship with the EU, deporting them will be on the table. And you might think that’s just good sense - the other EU members will want to look out for their citizens’ interests, and that means negotiating an arrangement on which they won’t have their lives turned upside down by being deported. Committing ourselves now would reduce our negotiating power.
But don’t we want them to stay? They contribute to life here, and deportation is awful, so kicking them out would be lose-lose. These people are our friends and neighbours, and deporting people is neither friendly nor neighbourly. But the possibility that we don’t want them to stay shouldn’t be ruled out. The person making this decision is quite likely to be Theresa May, and gratuitously deporting people is one of her hobbies. And then there are all the people in Britain who just don’t like immigrants. Without those people we never would have voted to leave the EU in the first place. So maybe that’s what’s going on.
But perhaps we really do want them to stay, but we’re pretending to be willing to do mass deportations as part of a negotiating strategy. If the other EU members don’t call our bluff, we might get some concessions out of them. It’s like threatening to walk away from the table. You don’t want to walk away from the table, but if the other side thinks you might do it anyway then you have more bargaining power.
This isn’t like walking away from the table, though. What happens if you don’t come to a deal? You do what you can to get what you wanted by yourself. And since we don’t need EU members’ co-operation to let their citizens stay here, in the absence of a deal we would just let them stay, if that’s what we wanted. Threatening to deport them, even though we don’t want to, is therefore not like threatening to walk away from the table. So what is it like?
It’s like threatening to kill hostages. People don’t tend to particularly want to kill their hostages, but they threaten to do it because they think people won’t dare call their bluff. This negotiating tactic can work, of course, both in real hostage situations and in the iterated prisoner’s dilemma of international diplomacy. But however effective it is, it’s not the negotiating tactic of civilized businesspeople. It’s the negotiating tactic of Bond villains, and I don’t want people negotiating on my behalf to use it.