Via Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program

By 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.

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