Negotiation lessons for aspiring Don Quixotes


The European vision of peace and prosperity is definitely inspiring. However, its implementation has turned into a quagmire. Prominent economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, have been quite outspoken against the pathologies of the euro. The European Union seems to have traded its moral compass for its fiscal integration. The once inspiring vision has turned into multiple realities, experienced by the various members in dramatically different ways.

For countries like Germany, Austria and Belgium, the vision of the EU is a hardworking windmill. Constantly turning, producing and feeding the village. For Greeks, and arguably other rebellious factions in Europe, the EU has become a monstrous giant. In the beginning, the winds of the euro kept the windmill turning, keeping people fed with its nutritious grains. In the end, poor leadership and austerity transformed it into a coldhearted monster, with complete disregard of their suffering.

Let’s set the record straight, Greece is responsible for its current state. However, the complacency of the EU is also enormous. For that reason, former prime ministers George Papandreou, Antonis Samaras, and mostly now leftist premier Alexis Tsipras –the youngest and boldest of the three aspiring “knights” – have been fighting the Windmills in the plains of Brussels. Their elusive assaults have left behind a stockpile of broken lances and millions of impoverished, desperate Dulcineas back home. Tsipras, the most rebellious of the three, is now trying to get up after his last charge failed to slow down the European sails.
This last demonstration of defiance almost brought Greece to the brink of a humanitarian crisis. His intentions were right; his strategy, however, was misguided.
The biggest problem of the recent Greek administrations was that they were consumed by the complexity of the negotiations. The technicalities of the European processes, the sophistication of macro finance, and the immense domestic challenges, merged into one dense, insoluble problem.
Fighting such a perplexed, gigantic opponent is laborious: Start from within and focus on one sail at the time. Never head on, especially when you have limited power. This is what multi-stakeholder negotiations look like.
Eurozone is composed by 18 other members, with their own interests, needs, positions, priorities and mindsets. Greece found itself against 18 and dealt with them almost as one monolithic entity. In a sense, it made the same mistake that eurozone has been doing all along – treating people in blanket terms, as one uniform group.
It should, instead, design a holistic negotiation strategy, customizable per eurozone member. That would require a lot of work, but there is simply no way around it.
Tsipras and his team could start by assessing and then addressing the needs and interests of each eurozone member individually. This would prepare the ground for the main negotiation in Brussels. Stakeholder analysis and engagement is something that should have been going on for years, and it could look something like this:
At first, the negotiating team would need to employ a number of subgroups, for example six. Each one of them would handle three accounts, i.e. eurozone members. Their job would be to map out all the relations that Greece has with each member, key pieces of information about them, along with the main issues that concern them. This map could help identify patterns that would in turn help define a strategy to approach that individual member.
Countries such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have been quite harsh against the Greek positions. It is difficult to support someone whom you feel disconnected with, you consider corrupt and you know is making more than you. Even more importantly, trust on a personal level is incalculable. The frustrated statements by various heads of states are indicative of the magnitude of distrust. The job of each team would be to figure out ways to rebuild trust, create new ties and enhance interdependency.
In the case of the Baltics, for example, Greece could unfold a narrative based on the fact that it never recognized officially their annexation by Russia, back in 1940. It would not be surprising if one the underlying reasons of their polemic has to do with Greece’s shortsighted flirting with Russia, which is common knowledge that it is toothless. Addressing their frustration over corruption would also be a big priority and Greece’s recent EU presidency could have been a chance to do so.

Another entry point could be to leverage the dominance of Greek ship owners. Lithuania has been pursuing energy independence and recently bought a NLG cargo ship, in order to end its Russian imports. Greeks also dominate the NLG cargo market, therefore there could be a proposal by the Greek side of assisting Lithuania, and the other Baltics, with getting a favorable deal for their energy transportation needs, in exchange for some lenience when it came to debt restructuring.
In the case of Finland, there could be a proposed plan by Greece to support its NATO membership in different levels. For Slovenia, communication could be assisted by reaching out to Ellaktor, a Greek construction company that recently signed a 26-million-euro contract to build a waste-management-plant in Novo Mesto.
These are only a few simplistic examples just to make the point of how Greece could proactively invest on its relations, in order to rebuild trust and garner support before the main negotiation. This way, it would also develop leverage by forming coalitions and assess its alternative scenarios through a new perspective.
Between its extensive expat community, its tourist and shipping industries and its traditional ties of culture and religion, Greece can reinvent its outreach. It is disturbing how little has been done the past few years, in order to substantially cultivate relations with European counterparts.
Unfortunately, Greece’s failure in the negotiations is related to its chronic absence from the international arena. The last bilateral visit in Estonia and Latvia was over 10 years ago, while Lithuania has never been visited by a Greek head of state. Greece needs to get out there in a professional manner. She needs to break the traditional introversion of its identity, and develop vital political capital. Greek politicians need to park their ass outside the windmill and start working from within. After all, “the brave man carves out his fortune, and every man is the son of his own works.”

* Nikolas Katsimpras is a lecturer at the negotiation and conflict resolution graduate program of Columbia University and a Senior Fellow at the Hellenic American Leadership Council. Twitter: @nkatsimpras