Getting to ‘No’: Lessons from the Greeks on how to avoid a Brexit catastrophe

Kevin Featherstone on the warnings for Britain from Greece’s negotiations with Europe in 2015 – and some much earlier Greek history.

Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has warned that without a “change in approach from the EU negotiators”, there is now a “very real risk of a Brexit no deal by accident”. This was because “many” in the EU believed they just had to “wait long enough and Britain will blink” but “that’s not going to happen”. To assess this risk, we need to consider how we got here.

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”, as Mark Twain is reputed to have said. So far, the clearest ‘rhyme’ for how the British have negotiated Brexit is how the Greek government negotiated with the EU on financial assistance in 2015. And we should recall how that ended – an ignominious defeat for Athens.

There are definite parallels in how the Brits and the Greeks have talked about their negotiating foes in Brussels.

‘Believe me, they will back down’, ‘they want to make us into a colony’, ‘we have alternatives if a deal can’t be agreed’, ‘others will follow us’, ‘we must be prepared to walk away’. All that was said by Alexis Tsipras, Yanis Varoufakis and their colleagues in the Syriza-led government of early 2015.

They chime with the comments of Theresa May and her supporters since 2016. Liam Fox promised Brexit “would be the easiest deal in human history”,  Jacob Rees-Mogg said the EU is “very bullying”, Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson argued that on the EU’s terms the UK “will be little other than a vassal state”, and of course May’s own mantra of ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. The examples of shared rhetoric could go on and on.

This onslaught puts the EU in a position where it cannot win. As ‘common sense’ dictates that Brussels should show flexibility and make concessions, when they fail to do so the only explanation offered is ‘bullying’. This ‘uncompromising aggression’ proves ‘we were right about them in the first place’.

Both London and Athens were stunned by the unity of their EU partners: 27 member states stood together against one. The ‘heroic battle’ inflamed the popular press at home, calling on their negotiators to fight the patriotic cause. At the same time, the reporting from Brussels gave a very different account of the truth – full of exasperation as to the failure of the other side to come up with credible plans, showing little advance on poorly-formulated ideas that had been previously rejected.

Athens, like London since, sought to reconcile the irreconcilable. Varoufakis, the celebrity game-theorist economist, projected a knowledge about bargaining strategies that others had foolishly missed. With his strategy, he promised voters, Greece would be able to both end the debt bailouts and remain in the euro zone. His stance has attracted sympathy from both the Eurosceptic Right in Britain, for conducting a valiant battle against the Brussels beast, and from Leftists sharing his neo-Keynesian critique of the euro zone’s policies. Leaving aside the latter (the substance of his policy challenge had much going for it), the result was a heavy defeat for Varoufakis. He was sacked by Tsipras, he has become hugely unpopular at home, and the economic estimates of the cost to Greece of his failed strategy are enormous.

Boris Johnson, now attacked as the worst Foreign Secretary in living memory, is no Varoufakis – his appeal doesn’t travel as well. Yet, like his fellow Brexiteers, his claim has been that the UK could have ‘frictionless’ trade with the EU27, outside a customs union, while there being no need for a border has a whiff of Yanis about it. The reconciliation of this apparent contradiction is to be found via the use of technology checking, but not stopping, traffic across the border. The solution is seen as fanciful by Michel Barnier and his team; hence, their insistence on the UK committing to a customs union alternative if, or rather when, necessary.

Varoufakis found that the EU27 would not budge their stance. Similarly, Barnier has championed from the start the indivisible quartet of the EU’s single market principles of freedom of movement (persons, goods, services, capital). Just months after the UK’s referendum, Donald Tusk (EU Council President) declared “The only real alternative to a ‘hard Brexit’ is ‘no Brexit’ – even if today hardly anyone believes in such a possibility”. And the EU27 mandate for the negotiations has been consistent: a third party cannot be half in or half out of the single market or a customs union. The sanctity of the EU construction is paramount, not only to the EU27 but also in terms of their existing external trade agreements.

The stand-off is alarming. If Varoufakis’ failure is not a sufficient warning, there may be lessons from further back in Greek history. Thucydides writes of the Athens-Melos negotiations amidst the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). Whatever could have gone wrong did go wrong. The Melians had little time to negotiate, brainstorm, or draft proposals. Though referred to as the ‘Melian Dialogues’, the negotiations were really two separate monologues. They bargained over contending ideals.

Like Athens and Melos, London and Brussels have locked horns in hard, positional bargaining. They’re talking past each other. This can be a dangerous and escalating process. Like the Melians, the Brits have been talking to themselves for the last two years about what is right and just and have only recently tried to persuade Brussels of their world view. They should heed the advice of the Athenians to the Melians – which was not to “regard what is in the future as more certain than what is before your eyes…or your hopes will… most completely deceived” (Thucydides, BookV [113]).

Whether it’s Varoufakis or Boris ranting at the bullies in Brussels – for not ditching everything and adopting their way of thinking – it creates a zero-sum game. If it is seen as a matter of ‘who blinks first’, then the contest has been defined as ‘winner takes all’. This way leads to disaster for the other side. There should be no doubt about the effect of asymmetries of power: in the end, Melos was destroyed.

This week, Theresa May is sending ministers out in all directions to try to divide her EU partners. This shows that the negotiations are still set as a battle of wills between two agendas.

In the Peloponnesian War, Athens never felt the Melians were negotiating seriously. That said, their negotiations involved some 27 exchanges; the EU Commission’s website records just eight rounds of Brexit negotiations with the UK so far and the Financial Times recently reported that David Davies, the former Brexit Secretary, had met Barnier for a total of only four hours this year. Is that really a serious approach or is it just grandstanding getting us to ‘No’?

Like Christine Lagarde of the IMF waiting for the Greeks, Barnier may well hope the ‘adults in the room’ will arrive soon.

Professor Kevin Featherstone is Head of the European Institute at the LSE.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School of Governance and London School of Economics and Political Science or its funder Stiftung Mercator.