Wednesday

20th Feb 2019

Opinion

Brexit vs Grexit: The six stages of losing to the EU

  • Lessons from the Greek failure in 2015, when finance minister Yanis Varoufakis tried to call Brussels' bluff - and lost (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

As Theresa May is trying to convince Brussels to accept Britain's terms for exiting the EU, the international community is almost certain that the attempt will fail.

The British government will persist in presenting the negotiations as a national success irrespective of the outcome.

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May's venture seems very similar to the last, failed attempt by Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras in 2015 to persuade Brussels to accept his terms for a memorandum on financial assistance, when a huge negotiation failure was presented to the public as the best possible deal with the EU.

Actually, Britain has already passed through, successively and with exact precision, all of the stages that the Greek government also had to endure during its own negotiations with Brussels.

Stage 1: There's always a better (super-easy) deal

Both countries decided at some point that they could continue their relationship with Europe but without being bound by the rules that applied for everyone else.

Indeed, they thought that an exception in their case could be enforced promptly and easily.

"We will cancel the memorandum with a one-article law", Tsipras said in 2012. In 2017 Liam Fox, the British minister for international trade, was making a similar assumption when he described the free trade agreement with the EU as "one of the easiest in human history".

Stage 2: Domino effect

When Europe failed to succumb to their demands, imaginary allies entered the equation.

According to the rhetoric of both Syriza and the Brexiteers, their countries were also speaking on behalf of neighbours who shared their desire for a head-on confrontation with the European Union.

"The political change in Greece will trigger a domino effect in Europe, beginning in the south," Tsipras predicted in 2014.

"We will trigger a domino effect. After us, other northern European countries will leave, starting with Denmark", said Nigel Farage immediately after the referendum.

Stage 3: Constructive ambiguity (aka 'Plan B')

Throughout the negotiations, Britons and Greeks claimed that the vagueness with which they treated the pressing questions of the EU was a deliberate tactical manoeuvre.

"Constructive ambiguity is absolutely necessary in our discussions with our EU partners," Yanis Varoufakis was saying in 2015.

"You will find it difficult sometimes to read what we intend. That's deliberate. I'm afraid in negotiations you do have constructive ambiguity from time to time, to borrow a nice phrase", said David Davis in 2017.

The negotiations came to an impasse, whereupon constructive ambiguity was renamed 'Plan B' in both countries; Plan B is also obscure, and again supposedly a tactical ploy.

Stage 4: We're in trouble

"The night of the referendum I walked into the office of Alexis Tsipras and he was completely discouraged and depressed," said Varoufakis in 2015.

"Boris Johnson did not want to win the referendum. He would have preferred to lose by a small margin," Sir Alan Duncan said in 2016.

Both the Greek prime minister and the former British foreign secretary supported the side that won, but the day after the referendums they were called upon to manage situations that had slipped out of their control.

Stage 5: Great hopes or self-deceptions

When the winners of the referendums came face to face with reality, they again sought refuge in emotional statements to justify their previous optimism, though this time with a personal tone.

Tsipras said that the only thing his political opponents could reproach him for was "his illusions" that Europe would retreat before his leftist ideals.

In a similar statement, Davis, the original minister for exiting the European Union, said that he did not intend to apologise simply because he had had "great hopes" about the deal that his country could make with the EU.

It is very interesting that while both politicians are describing the same failure, they fall back on the ideological archetypes of their parties to justify themselves in the eyes of their voters.

Confronting a left-wing audience Tsipras plays the part of a deceived Don Quixote; Davis assumes the role of a determined strongman trying to reach the top by his own efforts but without the support of a system he trusts.

Stage 6: Let's blame the negotiation

When no solution works, the problem is attributed to the negotiator and the deal he or she negotiated.

Someone else would have done better. The deals agreed are described in dramatic terms of irreversible disaster.

The memorandums before the Syriza-era were presented by Tsipras as agreements that would keep Greece "bound by its creditors forever".

According to Davis, Theresa May's Chequers terms would keep Britain "trapped forever within the EU".

So, May and Tsipras embarked on a new negotiation, conveying national demands for a last stand.

The internal processes (referendum in the Greek case, the vote at Westminster for May) were presented to Brussels as democratic commandments of historical importance that bind not only the national governments that brought them to the negotiating table, but also the negotiators on the other side of that table.

We know the outcome of the six stages of the Greek negotiation.

It remains to be seen how May's Stage 6 will play out. If however we wish to have an idea of how Brussels will deal with the demands of the British parliament, we should remember how it reacted to the decisive defeat of the bail out terms in the Greek referendum of 2015.

They ignored it.

Thimios Tzallas is a London-based newspaper journalist, author and political commentator. He writes for Kathimerini newspaper in Athens and his book Brexit, Europe and Greece will be published in 2019 by Epikentro publishers

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