Published: Policy Network
In June 2015 the negotiations between Athens and Brussels regarding the terms of financial aid for Greece broke-down. Negotiations over the previous five months were contentious and ill-tempered, as both sides refused to back-down. As the deadline of June 30 came and went – when Greece was due to make their next repayment to the International Monetary Fund – no deal was reached, and Greece became the first European state to default on a payment to the IMF.
Four years later, EU negotiators in Brussels are on a similar path, this time with London as the deadline of March 29 2019 fast approaches, the date by which the UK can complete its withdrawal with the EU. Without an agreement, the UK is likely to proceed to a catastrophic no-deal exit.
For those who have watched the ‘Brexit’ negotiations closely, the situation seems almost the same as was the case with Greece in 2015. The EU will not back-down, and the bloc is once again in the driving seat, partly because it is much bigger and stronger than any individual member-states (including the UK). The UK’s “nuclear” option of walking away from negotiations, which Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras also considered in 2015, would likely be a disaster for the UK. The EU – as the bigger player – possesses the resources to manage the fallout, but also the political legitimacy to do so, since it is not they who would be seen as responsible for the disaster, should the UK government fail to ratify the agreement they negotiated with the EU over more than eighteen painstaking months. While the UK’s withdrawal is in nobody’s interests in the EU, it is likely to have a greater impact on the UK and its immediate neighbours than on the EU as a whole.
What is the cost of the negotiation?
The talk about a “precipice” and a “point of no return” creates the illusion that it is enough for the UK to change course at the last moment, and everything will be as before. This is a mistake. As in the Greek case, the unsuccessful negotiation itself would cause enormous financial damage. The Remainers would attribute this damage to the Brexiteers, with the result that the divisions between the two groups would become aggravated, and exactly as in the case with financial indices, a climate of social consensus is extremely difficult to recover once lost.
The negotiations pursued by the SYRIZA party before the agreement cost the Greek taxpayer some 86 billion euro. It is not easy to accurately assess the costs that would be entailed by the extension of the uncertainty brought about by the Brexit negotiations, but the damage may be irreversible and has already triggered discussions about the responsibilities of those who brought the country to the edge of the precipice.
In recent weeks, commentary in the British press has warned the UK government of the threat of future inquiries regarding its responsibility during this episode (see here and also here). Exactly the same was happening in Greece at the height of its negotiations with Brussels four years ago. When it was revealed that Yanis Varoufakis was preparing a secret legislative decree to oversee the introduction of a new currency, the public prosecutor asked Parliament to investigate whether he could potentially face criminal charges for his actions.
Indeed, it is notable that while EU supporters invoke the courts as the last refuge of reason, the many newspapers that adopted an anti-EU stance see the judicial system as part of the untrustworthy establishment. The right-wing Daily Mail described the members of the Supreme Court as ‘enemies of the people’, while the left-wing Avgi outlet in Greece saw the initiatives advanced by SYRIZA as the defeat of a judicial system that had allied itself with the country’s creditors.
Remoaners and StayinEuropeans
The fact that the costs of Brexit will be disproportionately borne by the more vulnerable social groups, along with the nonchalance with which Brexit supporters consciously use uncertainty as a negotiating asset, serve to deepen the social divisions that have emerged. Remainers have posted social media photos of Sunderland residents cheering for Brexit one day after Nissan announced it would close down its factory there. This is evocative of the image of SYRIZA supporters dancing in Syntagma Square in Athens to celebrate the result of a referendum that was ultimately ignored, and eventually led to further tough austerity measures.
However, the confirmation of the claims of Europe’s supporters feeds the vicious circle of accusation and ultimately stokes the anger of anti-systemic groups and further alienates them from politics (Brexit supporters often brand Remainers as unconcerned elitists).
The archetype of the elitist is the same in Greece and in Britain. For some reason, in both countries the EU supporter does not look like either a Brit or a Greek, but rather like a moustachioed Frenchman who will never give up good food and wine. Even the term used in both countries to describe EU supporters is similar: “Remoaners” in Britain, “StayinEuropeans” in Greece.
Brexit then, is not merely a political decision that was imposed on society from above. On the contrary, it expresses a social dynamic. In truth, the last month of the negotiations is a precipice before the precipice. Britain is already sliding into the abyss, and will find it hard, economically and socially, to return to where it was before it started on its Brexit journey.