EU Fears Split Over Trade Talk Dilemma

Lisa Smith, BA (Hons), CeFA
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EU leaders fear that their united front on negotiating a Brexit trade deal with Britain may crumble as countries within the bloc face a ‘prisoner’s dilemma’.

But what is the prisoner’s dilemma and how could it work in favour of British Prime Minister Theresa May?

Here is an explanation of how the prisoner’s dilemma theory works.

The strategy

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack enough evidence to convict the pair on the main charge.

They hope to get both sentenced to a year in prison on a lesser charge.

Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent.

The offer is:

  • If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves two years in prison
  • If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve three years in prison (and vice versa)
  • If A and B both remain silent, both will only serve one year in prison (on the lesser charge)

The common-sense solution

If both prisoners remain silent, they face a one-year prison sentence. Any other course of action is likely to lead to a longer sentence for one or both – but humans are predisposed to co-operating, according to behavioural scientists.

Real world model

The dilemma can be applied to many situations which require co-operative behaviour between two or more parties.

For instance, some EU countries could gain benefits of striking a side deal with Britain rather than  face the hardship or expense of staying within the bloc.

What the EU is warning

“Each of us can have our own interests,” French president Emanuel Macron said, “That’s what the prisoner’s dilemma is all about. Everyone can have an interest in negotiating on their own and think they can negotiate better than their neighbour.”

“If individual countries did that, it is probable that collectively we will create a situation which is unfavourable to the European Union and thus to each one of us.”

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