Negotiating the Greek Way

By Paul Meerts

Following the case of Greece, Mr Paul Meerts, College of Europe visiting professor and trainer of the Executive Education course ‘Negotiations in Practice’, reflects on how trust is key to develop successful negotiations. But, what to do when there is a clear lack of trustiness? How can the EU arrive to a good deal somewhere half-way between –now more than ever- two very different approaches? Learn more about it by reading the column; more information about the ‘Negotiations in Practice’ course.


‘The Greeks cannot be trusted, not even if they come with presents.’ At least according to Virgil in his Aeneid, ‘quoting’ the Trojan priest Laocoön when he warned his Trojan fellow countrymen against the decision to demolish part of the city walls in order to drag the Wooden Horse of Ulysses into the city. If anybody ever said this, it must have been Virgil himself and we do not know what the reasons for such a strong statement are. According to the legend, Laocoön and his two sons were attacked by enormous sea snakes while making offerings to the Gods on the see shore. The Trojans saw this as a sign that it was safe to draw the horse into the city and Troy perished. However, the Greeks are not more untrustworthy than any other people on this globe; it is more correct to question if governments can be trusted. The problem is the government of a state –any state– not its people.

Trust is an important ingredient in successful negotiations. No trust, no effective negotiation process. What about trust in negotiating with Greece some 3000 years later? A problematic issue. Agreements have not been kept, the atmosphere during the negotiations on the Greek budget has been icy and the Greeks do not trust the European Union anymore and vice versa. How did this situation occur and what can be done about it? Indeed, the Greek governments have not been straight on the figures from the very moment they entered the Eurozone. But the financial and monetary EU experts did not check these figures, or if they did –and probably they did– there were good political reasons for getting the country into the euro. Most likely the EU ignored reality and by that it is as responsible for the present crisis as Greece itself.

Although trust is an essential ingredient to negotiation, there is no reason why states should trust each other. The ‘raison d’état’ will normally prevail and if the interests of any government demand breaking promises and stabbing the opponent –be it in a diplomatic way– most governments will not hesitate. It is therefore absolutely vital to compensate the lack of trust in international politics by political control over each other. Control can replace trust as the stabilizing factor in the negotiation process. This is why we observe –at least from the Peace of Westphalia until today– a growth of regimes to facilitate negotiation processes by establishing controllable contracts, multilateral conferences and, finally, international and supranational organizations like the European Union.

The European Union –being first of all a process of cooperation and mutual control– is relatively effective because of its inner strength. Its structures protect the processes needed to move forward. Nevertheless this is of no avail if, for political or other reasons, the EU institutions and regulations are not allowed to function as they should. In that case the whole idea of protecting processes of ‘give and take’ by constructing a strong context to force member states to live-up to their agreements is lost in translation. The euro is a good example of this. The decision makers were well aware of its shortcomings but they trusted in the future. A future that would for sure become problematic if tax, pension and social welfare systems would not be harmonized. But the idea was that the way out of such a crisis could only be further integration –for example of the banking system– and this would strengthen the Union.

Taking a closer look at the negotiations between Greece and the European Union striking trends can be observed. Both Greece and the EU took a very tough stand from the very start. In negotiation terms they applied distributive –that is win-lose–, strategies and tactics. This is quite amazing as win-win or integrative approaches are the norm in international organizations and even more in the EU. Distributive negotiation does occur of course, but is normally imbedded integrative bargaining. Obviously both parties hoped that such polarization would lead to a good deal somewhere half-way, but this mutual approach destroyed personal relationships which are more important in the EU than often thought of.

Note the importance of good personal understanding between political leaders like Kohl and Mitterand, Schröder and Chirac, notwithstanding opposing interest. Also note the far-reaching consequences and the short circuit between the last two and Berlusconi. According to negotiation theory it is vital to create a good atmosphere especially if the positions are so far apart. That atmosphere can help to bridge the gap. But if egos collide things will turn even sourer. ‘Egotiation’ must be avoided at all costs. A difficult task for the diplomats, trying to keep their bosses on track in order to move from confrontation to cooperation.

On the Greek side the rationale of trying to win as much as possible by heading towards collision worked as long as the EU had to fear for a ‘Grexit’ instead of an ‘Agreekment’ as long as Spain, Portugal and Ireland where endangered as well. After this problem was settled, the EU suddenly had a ‘Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement’ and ‘Grexit’ was no longer a major disaster for the Union. This context change severely weakened the Greek attack although it appeared nearly impossible to turn the Greek phalanx into a more peaceful direction. The government had entrapped itself and its population. Public opinion did not seem to be willing to go for appeasement and public opinion is probably the most decisive factor in any international negotiation process. At least for democracies.

Let’s see what the Greek elections will bring. In many cases the populous has been wiser than its government, e.g. the Scottish politicians and their constituency. Interesting to note is that game theoretical expert Varoufakis was not the right man at the right place. And coming back to the issue of trust, Lord Salisbury (1830-1903) said ‘No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you never should trust experts. They all require to have their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of insipid common sense.’ 



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