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It's always my fault

Stephen White

How many deadlines have been and gone in the continuing saga of the economic chaos in Greece? I would suggest there have been so many that we no longer believe that any of them really mattered – or ever will matter in the future.

The crescendo of press speculation in recent days indicates yet again that the media believes we might be getting close to a crisis point. That is because Greece has a large repayment of debt – a tidy €1.6 billion - to make to the International Monetary Fund by June 30th, and there isn’t that much in the Greek coffers, so there is a real possibility that Greece will default that day, triggering the much publicized exit of Greece from the Eurozone, commonly known as the Grexit.

 Add to this the fact that in recent days, talks between the various parties have all but broken down. These negotiations were always going to be complex - this is a classic multilateral negotiation involving two Greek political parties in coalition, the IMF, the European Central Bank, the European Union, and goodness knows how many influential speculators with billions to win or lose, all fronted by people with big egos and a determination to ‘win’, and all with their own vested interests). So it looks like there is deadlock now, a status which might well remain until it is too late to recommence and complete a negotiated settlement.

 Personally, I don’t believe a word of the doom laden speculation of meltdown.  Just as previous critical moments have come and gone, I expect this one will also. The deadlock will be broken, maybe by a chink of light shining on more talks in the future, maybe by the recommencement of negotiations before the deadline, maybe by a temporary extension of the repayment date. But as all competent negotiators know, none of these events will resolve the underlying issue until there is a change from intransigence to negotiation.

Deadlock is an interesting phenomenon. Defined as the standstill produced by the opposition of two or more unrelenting forces, the implication is that each unrelenting force is its creator, and therefore no one force can be to blame more than another. That is not how we usually see it however. It is informative that the headline in the Financial Times June 17th “Creditors make emergency plans as Greek defiance spurs bond turmoil” puts the blame squarely on Greek shoulders, whilst on the same day the Greek business daily Naftemporiki has “On the verge of rupture to deadlock negotiations between the Government and its Partners”, which spins the altogether more conciliatory line that the Greek government does not see itself as the sole cause of the deadlock but rather that it is the result of a joint failure with its negotiating counter-parties. 

 So my question is this: If two (or more) sides are ‘unrelenting’, are they always equally to blame? Either could change its stance and enable the negotiations to recommence. That does not mean capitulation, but it might mean creative interpretation, or the addition of new variables, or the reprioritization of must-get objectives. But in this saga none of the protagonists are doing that; maybe because they are following the game-theory model called Chicken which is based on an expectation that the other side will blink first because they have more to lose.

As a child (the older of two brothers) I had an often adversarial relationship with my sibling. He was a better fighter than me, but I was chubby and he was scrawny, and my weight tended to result in victory, so when we were unrelenting about who played with a jointly-owned toy, which happened often (especially with the prized electric train set), he usually ended up on the losing side of the short war, which he followed with an appeal to our Mom to rectify the injustice. Her line was to both of us was constant -  ‘If you’ve got a problem with each other it’s up to you to sort it out, and if you don’t then it’s always your fault’.  Yes, but who was ‘you’?

In my business life I learnt that ‘you’ was always ‘me’! Because even in situations of imbalance and great injustice, whether I was the underdog or had the balance of power, I could never guarantee to force a change of behavior on other parties, so if I needed to initiate change I had to initiate it myself.

The parties to this Greek tragedy need to heed my mother.

Stephen White

By the way, my brother and I get on fine now :)

Stephen White
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