The current negotiation format to solve the Greek crisis is flawed and dysfunctional. Is it time for an interventionist mediator? By Elena Marda

Six months of crisis talks between Greece and its creditors may come to an end this weekend. But this crisis is also the story of a deeply dysfunctional negotiation process. Ever shifting deadlines, hastily arranged emergency summits, countless lists of proposals that were sent or received after agreed deadlines, personal animosities, frantic shuttle diplomacy between Berlin, Brussels and Athens. And, more worryingly, the negotiation process created a climate of distrust and hostility: European and Greek politicians continue to engage in a dangerous war of words. Trust has completely broken down – and nobody has tried to rebuild it.

There is little doubt that an interventionist mediator, somebody who advises parties and steers the process, was desperately needed throughout the past six months. French President Hollande and Italian PM Renzi have tried to mediate but as heads of state of a eurozone country they are not neutral actors in the process. The decision of the two governments to offer help came far too late to make a positive impact. During the past couple of weeks, Donald Tusk - the President of the European Council – also attempted to mediate between the parties, but his involvement as a passive facilitator lacked the necessary dynamic to positively transform the process.

So how would a mediator have changed the course of the negotiations?

What is the conflict about? No mediation process starts without assessing the real, underlying reasons for a conflict. Is this really about the austerity measures? Or is it about offering breathing space to the Greek society? Is it really about reforms? And what reforms are actually needed? Or is it about a commitment to principles and rules that have shaped Europe for the past decades? After five years of constant negotiations and technical meetings, there is still a lack of understanding and empathy about what hit the Greek economy. There is also a lack of consensus of what we perceive as European values and whether they are commonly accepted and acknowledged by all Europeans (and their governments). A mediator would have tried to reach a common understanding of the situation and possibly developed a joint assessment of the underlying causes of the conflict.

Who are the relevant actors? The next step of a mediator would have been to identify and map relevant actors in the process. The Europeans failed to do their homework after the Greek elections in January. The actor constellation had changed but the European interlocutors did not manage to identify and map the leverage of SYRIZA’s different constituencies including the special relationship between PM Alexis Tsipras and former Minister Yanis Varoufakis. On the other hand, the newly elected Greek government was too quick to announce that they wanted to radically change a rather well established step-by-step negotiation process.

The need to strengthen engagement First of all a mediator would have changed the practical arrangements of the talks. Are emergency summits, shifting deadlines and a long trail of emails really the right format to negotiate such a complex deal? The second step to strengthen engagement is the realisation on both sides that outright victory is no longer possible. A mediator would have to communicate this message in order to emphasize the willingness of both parties to find a compromise. The third priority for a mediator in this phase would have been to establish a common understanding of what is at stake here. Is it merely a problem for Greece or is there a European dimension that needs to be taken into account?

How to balance interests? Cost and benefits have become a blurry image for constituencies in Greece and across Europe with technical terms and complicated financial calculations. However, trust between the creditors and the Greek government was irreversibly damaged after the failure of successive governments to implement so called structural reforms. A mediator would have been well placed to float new compromise proposals to bridge the divide between the Greek government and its creditors. Public involvement and understanding of negotiations processes is one of the most important pillars of any sustainable settlement. Mediators often aim to adjust the tone of debates and help both parties to find ways to communicate with each other (again). This also helps to involve different constituencies in the negotiation process. A mediator may have also helped to frame the referendum in a more positive way vis-a-vis the European partners. Aggressive statements from European officials and grandiose revolutionary declarations from their Greek counterparts could have been avoided if a mediator was present to foster wider support for the process by the European public.

Developing an agreement Finally, a mediator would have assisted the two sides in developing a mutually acceptable negotiation framework in which the outlines of an agreement would have been drafted. This would have helped leaders to take full responsibility for the outcome of the negotiations. Since the change of leadership in Greece, negotiations are being held, mostly, with verbal presentations instead of written proposals - this quickly turned into an argument to show that the Greek government is being inefficient and incompetent. A mediator would have helped to ease concerns that nothing would be final before both parties are in a position to agree on a joint document.

The current negotiation format is flawed and dysfunctional. It would be toxic for the EU to continue with this framework as if nothing had happened. Negotiations between Greece and its creditors will continue regardless of the outcome of this week's summit. We should seriously think about nominating an external mediator who is able rebuild trust, reinvent the negotiation process and make people talk with each other - and not at each other.

Photo: © European Union, 2015 (P-028799/00-07)