Britain Tries the Tsipras Approach to Negotiating with the EU

It will work just as well as it did for the Greek prime minister.

Copies of Germany's Handelsblatt newspaper on sale in Oberding, July 3, 2015
Copies of Germany’s Handelsblatt newspaper on sale in Oberding, July 3, 2015 (Tomas Thoren)

Brexiteers learn nothing.

Less than two months away from Britain’s deadline to leave the EU, they still believe they can bluff their way to a better deal.

Hence Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resistance to legislation that would block a no-deal Brexit. He and his allies claim that to get a better exit agreement, the EU needs to know that Britain is prepared to walk away.

This is the Alexis Tsipras approach: give me what I want or I’ll shoot myself in the head.

It didn’t work for Greece and it won’t work for the UK.

The Tsipras experiment

Tsipras was elected in 2015 on a promise to end austerity. He threatened to pull his country out of a bailout agreement with the EU, which would have plunged Greece into default and possibly triggered its exit from the euro, unless the rest of Europe and the IMF agreed to more generous terms.

They refused and Tsipras caved — but not before being forced to impose capital controls and setting back Greece’s economic recovery. He lost reelection earlier this year.

Same dynamics

Brexit isn’t very different

  • The EU is in a much stronger position. It has half a billion people and an economy worth €18 trillion against 66 million and €2.5 trillion for the UK. A no-deal Brexit would do far more damage to Britain than to the EU.
  • The EU doesn’t bluff. It protects the interests of its member states, in this case Ireland, which insists on the withdrawal agreement’s so-called backstop.


Brexiteers object to the backstop, which could keep Northern Ireland, and by extension the whole of the United Kingdom, in an indefinite customs union with the EU. To them, this defeats the point of leaving.

The EU’s perspective is:

  1. If Britain didn’t want the backstop, it should have agreed to either remain in the single market on terms similar to Norway or a separate deal for Northern Ireland. Britain refused both. The former would have permanently tied it to EU regulations. The latter could have created the need for a customs border in the Irish Sea.
  2. A hard border in Ulster, impeding free travel and trade, could reignite the sectarian violence that plagued the region for decades.

Britain claims it wants to avoid a hard border too, yet it has rejected the EU’s alternatives to one and failed to come up with an alternative of its own.

That, not a belief Britain isn’t serious about leaving, is the reason attempts to negotiate a “better” deal have failed.