Greek negotiations: A marathon that has yet to run its course

Marathon runners

What started back in the autumn of 2014, under the auspices of former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, now appears to have reached its endgame, one way or the other. To the spectator in the theatre of Greek and European politics, the events of the past eight months are riddled with twists and turns that could fill a library on how not to carry out negotiations.

In the meantime, many of the key players, notably on the Greek side, have changed. The political leadership of the negotiating team was completely reshuffled as a result of the general election on 25 January. Some members of this team were subsequently reassigned because of their lack of progress or competence, depending on which member of the Greek government one is following on Twitter.

At the same time, extensive rebranding exercises have taken place in order to rename the financial diplomats of the Troika as the “institutions”. Furthermore, the arduous negotiations have relocated from Athens and a temporary alternative base in Paris to the Belgian capital, where the so-called Brussels Group has been gathering regularly since February.

But despite all these efforts to change names, the rules of the game, the players and the location, the final push towards a framework agreement was determined without direct Greek involvement in the eurozone capital where it matters most –Berlin – and at the highest political level. This included the Chancellery, IMF, ECB, Juncker and French President François Hollande.

For any European and international financial diplomat participating in this negotiation marathon, the encounter with representatives of the senior party in the Greek coalition government is a formidable learning experience. SYRIZA’s focus on the symbolism of politics, the cacophony of positions and ever-changing “red lines”, the deliberate leaking of documents or the recording of confidential proceedings of the Eurogroup of finance ministers, all constitute an unprecedented encounter with an emerging reality in Europe. This political contagion could spread from Athens to other capital cities, possibly gaining further momentum by expanding to Madrid in due course.

Since the change of government in Athens in late January, the first five months of practical experience illustrate how the existing coordinates of European policymaking vis-à-vis the defiant political leadership of a programme country have been fundamentally called into question. The controversial issues at hand are not primarily about financing tranches, compliance requirements, red lines or ultimatums.

The heart of the matter is more about the defining principles and benchmarks of cooperation in the European Union, particularly inside the eurozone. Integrating themselves into the working arrangements of European institutions such as the Eurogroup, the directors-general of the Commission, the ECB or the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) remains a formidable work in progress for SYRIZA representatives. Furthermore, respecting the rules of the game on how compromises are reached and subsequently communicated is an equally significant political challenge for the Tsipras government.

When the new government considered the conclusions of its electoral victory in January, it made, in my view, two key strategic mistakes that subsequently misinformed their negotiation strategy. For one, SYRIZA was given a convincing mandate for a change of course in Greece. But instead, ministers were hardly in office when they started to reinterpret this mandate as a road map for a European U-turn with regard to policy conditionality vis-à-vis Greece. But this was not the instruction manual which the Greek government received from its domestic electorate, and even less so from any European constituency.

SYRIZA’s second strategic error consisted in assuming that it was necessary to lecture its European partners on the catastrophic consequences of austerity policies during the past five years. These effects were plain to see for everybody, including the IMF, and did not need to be reinforced by SYRIZA representatives with a “know-it-all” attitude.

Instead of lecturing, SYRIZA ministers’  focus from the outset should have been to emphasise that the new government in Athens would be a reliable and credible negotiating partner, one that is prepared to drive a hard bargain, but understands when the timing for compromise has arrived. In this area of establishing mutual respect and building that political commodity called trust in Europe vis-à-vis Greece, the Tsipras government failed massively in its first five months in office.

If and when an interim agreement is reached, the participants at the signing ceremony will be exhausted after months of posturing, deliberate leaks, take-it-or-leave it rhetoric etc. But despite their physical state and the accumulated animosity, the various parties already know that they will face each other again soon.

If the past eight months of negotiations are labelled arduous and contentious, what do we think the forthcoming deliberations will look like? Negotiations where even more complex and controversial issues will be put on the table, like debt relief, possibly a new financing agreement and highly intrusive monitoring of implementation road maps.

The fatigue factor and frustration among eurozone member states towards Greece and its SYRIZA-led government have even extended to European partners from Slovenia, Malta, Cyprus, Belgium, Slovakia and the Baltic states. The finance ministers in these countries had always held back in the past from publicly criticising Greece.

This has now profoundly changed. Among the most vocal critics of the Tsipras government at the European level are representatives from Ljubljana, Nicosia, Valletta, Brussels, Bratislava, etc. Athens should take note of these red flags instead of drawing more red lines. It is alarming that the Greek authorities are losing support from countries which they need to have on their side in the coming months when new negotiations start, which will be no less arduous, contentious or exhausting than the previous marathon.


About the Author

The Corner
The Corner has a team of on-the-ground reporters in capital cities ranging from New York to Beijing. Their stories are edited by the teams at the Spanish magazine Consejeros (for members of companies’ boards of directors) and at the stock market news site Consenso Del Mercado (market consensus). They have worked in economics and communication for over 25 years.

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