Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief “Brexit” negotiator, visited Athens last Friday to give the government an update on progress. This can’t have taken him very long – the divergences in the positions of the United Kingdom and the EU-27 remain wide.
We can only hope Barnier used his time more wisely and implored Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to press upon his British counterpart Theresa May and her colleagues to learn the lessons of Greece’s mistakes in early 2015.
For the parallels between how his government approached negotiations with the European Union then and how London has faced up to Brussels since the Brexit referendum in 2016 are close and disturbing. As Mark Twain is reported to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.”
Consider the phraseology: “Believe me, they will back down”; this will be “the easiest deal in human history”; they want to turn us “into a colony”; if we accept their terms we’ll be little more than a “vassal state”; “they’re very bullying”; “we have alternatives if a deal cannot be agreed”; “no deal is better than a bad deal.” The speech patterns are so close, it’s difficult to separate which are the Greek and which the British.
Strategically, there are deeper similarities. Yanis Varoufakis claimed he had a superior knowledge of bargaining moves and promised he could reconcile that which was irreconcilable. Greece could both end austerity and stay in the eurozone. He was deluded: The estimates I’ve heard of his damage to the Greek economy start at $250 billion.
Similarly, the Brexiteers today argue that the UK can have the most open of trade regimes with the EU-27 while not being part of a customs union or single market. Instead, they plan to rely on technology monitoring cross-border traffic, avoiding the need for border controls. The Commission is so impressed by this plan that they insisted London commit to a customs union agreement when – sorry, if – it fails.
Both Varoufakis then and the Brexiteers now adopted hard bargaining positions that are seductive at home but show no connection with the position adopted by the other side. As Varoufakis found, this can escalate matters dangerously.
The EU barely shifted position in 2015 and it is not doing so now. Barnier has championed from the start the indivisibility of the EU’s single market provisions.
Just months after the UK referendum, European Council President Donald Tusk declared: “The only real alternative to a ‘hard Brexit’ is ‘no Brexit.’ 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.” The standoff is alarming.
If Varoufakis’s 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. Though referred to as the “Melian Dialogues,” the negotiations were, rather, two separate monologues. They bargained over incompatible ideals.
Like the Melians, the Brits have been talking to themselves for the last two years about what is right and just and have latterly 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… be most completely deceived” (Thucydides, BookV ).
Viewing matters as a “zero-sum” game leads to disaster for the other side – there should be no doubt about the asymmetries of power: In the end, Melos was destroyed. The UK knows the options the EU is prepared to consider. The Brexit choice is ultimately between the types of relationship that Norway and Canada have with the EU. No other option preserves the EU’s single market model.
Norway is a full member of the single market, but as it is not an EU member it has no rights in deciding the market rules. The EU’s treaty with Canada offers free trade in goods, but not for the services sector and it requires border controls. The latter does not fit the commitment to there being no border in Ireland.
Facing the Athenians, the Melians had little time to negotiate, brainstorm or draft proposals. London is bound by a two-year limit that finishes at the end of March 2019. That said, the Melians’ negotiations involved some 27 exchanges with Athens; the European Commission’s website records just eight rounds of Brexit negotiations 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.
So Barnier had plenty of reason to ask Tsipras to share the lessons he himself had learnt in 2015. Raising false hopes means no progress. Perhaps he is also impatient to have “Adults in the Room” for the Brexit negotiations.
Kevin Featherstone is Eleftherios Venizelos Professor of Contemporary Greek Studies at the London School of Economics.