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Sometimes failed negotiations are the ones that teach us the most.

This fall, I had the privilege to personally advise one of the negotiating parties in the talks to form a new German government following the September election. This was perhaps my most challenging assignment ever, with valuable lessons learned along the way.

For those not initiated into the details of German coalition politics: the country now has six parties, all with assigned colors:

  1. The Christian Democrats(CDU/CSU), the party of Merkel. 38%. Black.

  2. The Social Democrats (SPD). Coalition partners in the last government. 24%. Red.

  3. The Free Democrats (FDP). 10%. Liberal party, now back in Parliament. Yellow.

  4. The Greens. Ecological party. 12% . Green, of course.

  5. The Left Party. Former East German Communists. 11%. Dark Red.

  6. The AfD, new far right party. 13%. No color yet, but maybe blue.

Given the complexity of the situation and the declared intention of the four democratic parties never to cooperate with the Left or AfD parties, the only realistic coalition seemed to be a CDU/FDP/Green combo, whimsically named for the colors of the Jamaican flag. But what a challenge, as especially the Greens and FDP have little love for each other. Could a four-way win-win deal be crafted?

And so fairly complicated “pre-coalition” talks ran for more than seven weeks, covering 31 issue blocks and with repeated and fairly exhausting all-night sessions. After coming tantalizingly close to an agreement, the process was abruptly aborted as the FDP dramatically pulled out of talks at literally 10 minutes to midnight. What to do?

I took away three big takeaways from this experience:

1. Values are more fertile ground than interests in multilateral negotiations. While interests were often diametrically opposed, some good listening and empathy unearthed unexpected shared values: animal rights, for example, or climate change. The CSU came to realize, for instance, that refugees should be with their families just like Bavarian ones.

2. Watch out for spoilers. In hindsight, it seems clear that the FDP never really intended to reach a deal. All efforts to offer concessions to this party, often at the expense of others, were simply wasted. Good faith is essential for good negotiations.

3. WATNAs can be more relevant than BATNAs. One reason the FDP was able to leave so easily was that their “Worst Alternative”, new elections, was significantly less daunting than it was for the others. Having no fear of even the worst outcome is a significant source of power. Lots more to think about here.

So what to do now? As a much weakened Frau Merkel turns to her fairly unattractive BATNA of a renewed Grand Coalition with the SPD, it really is unclear where the country is headed. Negotiations continue, also for the former participants, if now far less public. Stay tuned!


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