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

Agora Contributor: Jens Bastian

Greece’s negotiations with its international creditors have now entered its eighth month, with a possible interim agreement due to be discussed in Brussels between Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.

What started back in the autumn of 2014 under the auspices of former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras now appears to have reached its end game, 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 of 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 for because of their lack of progress or competence, depending on which member of the Greek government one is following on Twitter.

Equally, extensive rebranding exercises have taken place in order to rename the financial diplomats of the troika into 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 in changing 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 – at the highest political level, which 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.

Rather, the heart of the matter concerns 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 negotiations 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 into a road map for a European U-turn as regards 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.

The second strategic error committed by SYRIZA 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, the focus of SYRIZA ministers should have been, from the outset, 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 field of establishing mutual respect and building the political commodity called trust in Europe vis-à-vis Greece, the Tsipras government failed massively in the first five months in office.

If and when an interim agreement will be 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 such as 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 reached European partners from Slovenia, Malta, Cyprus, Belgium, Slovakia and the Baltic states. The finance ministers of 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 note these red flags instead of drawing more red lines. It is alarming that the Greek authorities are losing support from countries who 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.

*You can follow Jens on Twitter: @Jens_Bastian. This article appeared in last week's e-newsletter, which is available to subscribers online or via our free mobile apps (App Store and Google Play).

3 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: Dean Plassaras

    Well that's one way to interpret it.

    However, the most prevalent view is that Greece has already won this Marathon race and the losers in Brussels, Berlin and elsewhere now need a new narrative for strictly face saving purposes.

    After all Greece has been a gigantic failure of both European policy and solidarity. This is a loss for the so called "Europa" from which it will never recover.

  • Posted by: Nikos Makris

    Dear Jens it is interesting that you highlight, Slovenia, Malta, Estonia, Slovakia..
    Their exposures to a Greek default as a % of nominal GDP are amongst the highest in the Eurozone exceeding 2.5% and reaching 3% in the case of Slovenia.

    • Posted by: Jens Bastian, Macropolis

      Thank you for your feedback, Nikos. You are correct to underline the correlation between exposure to Greece of these countries and the increasing frustration their representatives express vis-a-vis the negotiation narrative of PM Tsipras.

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