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Boris Johnson will be the Alexis Tsipras of 2019. Here’s why

The most valuable lesson that the Tsipras experience can teach Johnson? The EU is not about to give up representing its 27 member-states in order to indulge the whims of a populist leader

Thimios Tzallas
Monday 19 August 2019 16:50 BST
Boris Johnson says he is confident in exiting October 31

Even though Boris Johnson enjoys reciting the ancient Greek tragic poets from memory, he is increasingly sounding like the Greek prime minister in 2015, Alexis Tsipras. As newly elected leaders, both politicians questioned their predecessors’ deals with the European Union and resorted to populism in an attempt to avoid an unpleasant compromise and a looming ultimatum.

For Tsipras’ Greece, the date with no tomorrow was 30 June, 2015. This was when the bailout programme for Greece would come to an end. Without the financial assistance received under the loan agreement with its creditors (European Commission, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund), Greece would be unable to pay the pending instalment of 1.5m euros to the IMF. It would go bankrupt, as indeed happened.

For Boris Johnson, the scenario of irreversible disaster is a no-deal Brexit on 31 October. In reality however, though these dates are described in messianic terms, there is time for compromise even after they have come and gone. What is different is the price to be paid for whoever is ultimately forced to retreat.

Proud negotiators versus collaborators

Tsipras was elected in January 2015. For five months the new government in Athens tried to persuade Brussels to consent to a new financial assistance plan on the basis of terms that were blatantly favourable for Greece. These tactics led to a total, and predictable, debacle. The EU did not retreat. Even today, Greeks speak ironically of the first five months of SYRIZA as the “proud negotiation”.

But Tsipras was able to cultivate within the country a politically advantageous Manichaean bipolarity: uncompromising, proud Greeks versus those who are servile to Brussels. Those who opposed the prime minister’s tactics were reviled as “quislings”, the word reserved for those who collaborated with the Nazis in World War II. The comparison of modern Germany with Hitler’s Nazis was a prominent pre-election slogan of SYRIZA supporters.

Boris Johnson also resorts to Manichaeism in order to explain his own proud negotiation. In a recent Q&A session at Facebook, he called those MPs who oppose his plans “collaborators”. Just like the SYRIZA supporters, Boris has referred to the EU as a super-state.

A dream deal

Johnson’s rhetoric may be politically useful for him, but Brussels pays it scant attention. In 2015 the EU deployed the same dry and monotonous manner in ignoring Tsipras’ rhetoric. It recognised one deal only, the one already signed by the previous Greek government and the Eurozone member-states.

Tsipras thought that the only way to overcome EU resistance was an emphatic rejection of the deal by the Greek people. For SYRIZA, a new dream deal was feasible, as long as the people would tell the EU representatives that they categorically rejected the agreement. The popular demand would be binding on the “unelected bureaucrats in Brussels”. Using this rationale, the team of Tsipras and Varoufakis (finance minister) deployed the solution of the referendum.

The Greek government announced the referendum on 27 June, three days before the deadline of June 30, 2015. Tsipras attempted to dissociate the financial assistance from the hard conditions which the EU set for granting it. Boris Johnson’s argument is exactly the same, promising an ideal European deal with benefits for the British, without the obligations of the previous agreement. Like Tsipras, Johnson seeks popular consent for advancing this utopian deal, so as to strengthen his negotiating position against the “unbending bureaucrats” in Brussels.

Tsipras’ bluff blew up spectacularly in his hands. Jeroen Dijsselbloem, president of the Eurogroup, refuted the Greek prime minister’s argument about democratic legitimisation. He said that Greece did not have bureaucrats on the other side of the negotiating table, but the 18 member-states of the Eurozone, in which 18 referendums could also be held, asking the people there to approve the financial assistance to Greece.

The Dijsselbloem dogma applied in the Greek case and now applies as against Boris. The EU is not about to give up representing the people’s will in 27 member-states in order to indulge the whims of a populist leader. This is the most valuable lesson that the Tsipras experience can teach Johnson.

For Britain the crucial date is October 31. Boris Johnson is readying for elections, brandishing the threat of an imminent disaster. In truth, he has begun preparing the electorate for the U-turn he will have to make when confronted with an unavoidable and painful compromise. The more dramatic his narrative, the more persuasive will he appear at the time of crisis.

The splitting of the political world into proud negotiators and collaborators is already proving politically useful (Boris is gaining ground in the opinion polls and is defining the political agenda with his fiery rhetoric). It will not cease being useful even after a possible compromise. On the contrary, his Manichaeism will remain valuable at election time, whether before or after 31 October.

In the case of Tsipras the trick worked. The economic cost of him finally accepting the deal – adopting with spectacular success the narrative of a betrayed Don Quixote who was forced to make a dignified compromise in order to save the country –was translated into political gain for himself. If Boris plays his cards right, it just might work for him too.

Thimios Tzallas is a London-based newspaper journalist and political commentator. He writes for Policy Network, Balkan Insight, Ta Nea newspaper and others. He is the author of Brexit, Europe and Greece (2019, by Epikentro Publishers)

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