Negotiations within European Union 101: Hard Bargaining versus Problem Solving


Negotiation involves strategically addressing an issue in a way that all parties find acceptable. In a negotiation, all parties try to influence and convince the others in accordance with their interests. At the international level, negotiation is a solution-seeking process based on power, and a specific dispute can either be completely resolved or may not be completely resolved by all parties' satisfaction.

As one of the most influential organizations, for the European Union to function, negotiations are crucial. The formation of the union has brought significant effects on the policy-making process. Unlike most of the exclusively state-dominated international organizations, legislation in the European Union is carried out as a political process where power is distributed among institutions. In this sense, there are some differences between EU negotiations and traditional international negotiations. The Member States must influence negotiation processes to be able to shape the formation and implementation of common policies. This 101 series is dedicated to discussing the negotiation process within European Union.

Negotiations within European Union 101 is divided into five chapters:

  1. Negotiations within European Union: The Mechanism and Institutions

  2. Negotiations within European Union: Qualified Majority Voting Versus Consensus

  3. Negotiations within European Union: Trilogue Negotiations

  4. Negotiations within European Union: Hard Bargaining versus Problem Solving

  5. Negotiations within European Union: Discussion of IGC 2000

Negotiations within European Union 101: Hard Bargaining versus Problem Solving

The two opposing paradigms that shape negotiations within the European Union are hard bargaining and problem-solving. Hard bargaining reflects self-centric and uncompromising behavior whereas problem-solving adopts cooperative approaches that will benefit all parties as well as common interests. As the two opposite ends of a spectrum, these paradigms are contested in terms of their capacity and influence to shape EU negotiations. This article explains the two methods and discusses their impact on EU negotiations.

Brexit Negotiations Deadlock (1)

Hard bargaining is shaped by severe controversies and aggressive behavior in the most general sense. Negotiators as representatives of national interests start by claiming their ideal position, which includes the best outcome with all objectives achieved. National interests mapped on the bargaining situation as static preferences are assumed to be fixed and unitary, and the diplomat's task is to try to maximize them through negotiation, meaning that of the outcome of the negotiation may be evaluated largely according to the amount of utility produced for the state (Hopmann, 1995, p. 29). These very high demands of each negotiator leave no room for compromise, making it difficult to meet even the lowest common denominator. Negotiators, can publicly pledge that they are not willing to give in, manipulate a situation or form a coalition to prevent a compromise in the presence of qualified majority voting. The bargaining orientation is based on the assumption that all participants will pursue their individual self-interest, and that agreement will only be reached if each party expects an outcome which is no worse than the status quo, making it very difficult to obtain major changes due to vetoes (Elgström & Jönsson, 2000, p. 687). As a concept perceived as zero-sum game, it cannot be said that hard bargaining is the most reasonable method to negotiate. The European Union’s institutional framework consists of a multilevel negotiating system (Kohler-Koch, 1999, p. 16). As a result, alignment of all parties’ positions is not always possible in the presence of conflicting interests. Yet, bargaining paradigm has been the one most frequently employed by diplomats during negotiations (Elgström & Jönsson, 2000, p. 680).

Negotiations on the EU Budget (2)

On the other hand, problem-solving approach is characterized by moderate and cooperative behavior. According to this perspective the goal of negotiation is to solve common problems that the parties face and to try to find solutions to those problems that will benefit everyone (Hopmann, 1995, p. 30). The European Union is defined as a highly institutionalized, continuous mechanism for negotiating (Elgström & Jönsson, 2000, p. 687). The continuous nature of negotiations is important in this sense, since it has an impact on the dynamics among the Member States. Negotiators tend to refrain from aggressive behaviors to prevent interruption of any further negotiations. The permanency of negotiations creates an effect called ‘socialization’ as well. In this context, socialization is defined as a process by which actors acquire different identities, leading to new interests through regular and sustained interactions within broader social contexts and structures (Bearce & Bondanella, 2007, p. 706). After a long term collaboration in an institutionalized setting, actors are likely to form shared values. Similar to the culture of consensus which was explained in the second article of this series, institutions such as the Council and negotiators individually, prefer to participate in joint initiatives in this case. The main idea of problem-solving approach as a win-win situation is that all of the actors will gain advantages in the long run. However, outweighing national interests requires common will and absolute integrity. Given the vague existence of a European identity, the impact of shared values on voluntary abnegation and compromise remains questionable.

The “Next Generation Europe” Plan (3)

It is a fact that negotiators use both of these two methods, however, one of them outweighs most of the time. In general, the choice between hard bargaining and problem solving is made according to the three factors: the nature of the issue in question, the position of the Member States and the culture. In the presence of a sensitive issue causing problems that needs to be addressed quickly, the tendency to adopt the problem-solving approach increases among the negotiators. Although, hard bargaining remains as a frequently used method. In addition, the Member States’ position influences their choice of method as well, in terms of resources and status quo. Countries with more political and economic resources have the capacity to influence others. Therefore, they can afford to use hard bargaining.

The Brexit Negotiations Tool Rack (4)

During the negotiations concerning the Financial Perspective 2007-2013, the evidence supports that countries that are large in terms of both population and economic output like the United Kingdom and Germany, actors were more likely to rely on hard bargaining (Dür & Mateo 2010, p. 560). If a Member State is satisfied with the status quo, in order to prevent a compromise that can affect the current situation, most probably it will prefer hard bargaining. During the negotiations of the Treaty of Nice in 2000, Belgium and Portugal threatened to walk out, after the French president, Jacques Chirac, introduced a controversial Council voting plan that would have reweighted votes in favor of the large member states (König & Slapin, 2006, p. 416). This indicates that Belgium and Portugal are better off without reaching an agreement. They were able to adopt hard bargaining method since they knew that if the negotiations came to a halt they would be relatively less affected. Hard bargaining tends to be risky, however, states that expect to be worse off than the status quo in the future are more risk acceptant than the others (Dür & Mateo, 2010), p. 8). Lastly, the culture of the Member State influences the choice of method. During the Brexit Negotiations, the United Kingdom was not the powerful actor that could afford to compensate unwanted consequences of the hard bargaining approach. Also, the country needed a deal more than the other Member States. The negotiations were long and problematic in most aspects. Yet, the United Kingdom insisted on hard bargaining approach, making difficult to compromise. This is because many cultural factors have influenced the UK’s decision to adopt a hard bargaining strategy, including the country’s majoritarian institutional culture, its weak socialization into the EU, overstated perceptions of its own capabilities, the prevailing conservative political ideology, and a longstanding preference for 'divide and rule' diplomatic strategies (Martill & Staiger, 2020, p. 261).

There is no consensus over the prevalence of hard bargaining and problem-solving. Negotiations within the European Union can be directed by both methods together and separately, depending on the context and situation. In terms of their utility in explaining and analyzing the negotiations, both methods provide accurate accounts. However, despite the longstanding existence of the culture of consensus in the European Union, hard bargaining still remains as a common method. Therefore, it is impossible to say that problem-solving approach outweighs in a highly institutionalized setting. As long as the Member States have common interests together with national interests, the co-existence of the two paradigms is more likely to endure.


Bearce, D. H., & Bondanella, S. (2007). Intergovernmental organizations, socialization, and member-state interest convergence. International Organization, 61(04).

Dür, A., & Mateo, G. (2010). Bargaining power and negotiation tactics: The negotiations on the EU's financial perspective, 2007-13. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 48(3), 557–578.

Dür, A., & Mateo, G. (2010). Choosing a bargaining strategy in EU negotiations: Power, preferences, and culture. Journal of European Public Policy, 17(5), 680–693.

Elgström, O., & Jönsson, C. (2000). Negotiation in the European Union: Bargaining or problem-solving? Journal of European Public Policy, 7(5), 684–704.

Hopmann, P. T. (1995). Two paradigms of negotiation: Bargaining and problem solving. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 542(1), 24–47.

Kohler-Koch, B. (1999). The Evolution and Transformation of European Governance, 14–25.

König, T., & Slapin, J. B. (2006). From unanimity to consensus: An analysis of the negotiations at the EU's constitutional convention. World Politics, 58(3), 413–445.

Martill, B., & Staiger, U. (2020). Negotiating Brexit: The cultural sources of British hard bargaining. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 59(2), 261–277.

Image References

Figure 1: Child, D. (2020). Brexit Negotiations Deadlock. [Cartoon]. Retrieved from

Figure 2: Mureşan, S. (2013). Negotiations on the Eu Budget. [Cartoon]. Retrieved from

Figure 3: Janssen, T. (2020). The “Next Generation Europe” Plan. [Cartoon]. Retrieved from

Figure 4: Royaards, T. (2017). The Brexit Negotiations Tool Rack. [Cartoon]. Retrieved from

Author Photo

Deniz Aktunç

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