UK Politics: Greek example suggests EU will be tough on UK

The EU showed Greece no mercy in 2015. Will it make an example of the UK over Brexit?
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There are lessons for UK politicians to learn from the Greek government's treatment by the EU in 2015, says Max Liu, but if disaster is to be averted then the Labour leadership needs to start opposing hard-Brexit...

"While Liam Fox and Michael Gove argue about chlorinated chickens, Labour should be making hay. Instead, Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell appear to support a hard Brexit while pretty much everyone else in Labour opposes it."

Last week, this column took its annual holiday and went to Greece, a country that knows a lot about political upheaval and the terrible bargains that the European Union can impose on its members. On the beach, I read Adults in the Room, Yanis Varoufakis's memoir about his time as Greece's finance minister. Varoufakis lasted six months in the job but more happened in that time than many politicians manage in several decades and his book offers rare insights into what happens behind closed doors in European politics.

For British readers, one of the main lessons from Adults in the Room is that leaving the European Union is a bad idea and fraught with complications. It's possible that lots of people are gradually coming around to this view, as the UK is [1.43] not to have left the EU by 29 March 2019 (two years from the date article 50 was triggered) and even [1.79] to still be a member by 2022. This week, Malta's Prime Minister said he's starting to think Brexit won't happen while Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said he thinks it can still be stopped.

Varoufakis certainly never wanted Greece to leave the Euro or the EU. Even when the Troika was threatening to shutdown Greece's banks, Grexit - on which Betfair offered a market back in the heady summer of 2015 - was a very last resort. Which raises the question: if somebody who has first-hand experience of how the EU can erode national sovereignty, still thinks leaving is a mistake, why is the UK dead set on Brexit? The UK has more room to manoeuvre than Greece did, as the UK economy is in much better shape, but by the same token the UK has more to lose.

Greece, according to Varoufakis, was subjected to "fiscal waterboarding". He quotes Slovakia's finance minister: "We had to be tough on Greece because of their Greek spring." EU leaders were worried in 2015 that the election of Greece's Syriza party could inspire voters across Europe to elect similarly left-leaning governments which would challenge the continent's economic consensus. The upstart Greek government had to be subdued and made to accept a punishing austerity package, the consequences of which are evident in the country today. It seems possible then that, if it wants to limit the chances of other members leaving, the EU will make an example of the UK too.

Are Labour divisions deepening over Brexit?

Varoufakis campaigned for Labour in June's general election, so perhaps he can help them come up with a policy on Brexit that won't alienate their supporters. Last Sunday, Corbyn said a Labour government would take Britain out of the single market and abandon free movement of people. This is an odd position for Corbyn, who has an exemplary record on supporting rights for immigrants and refugees, and potentially puts him at odds with shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer who said last month that staying in the single market was still an option.

It makes little political sense too. Why aren't Labour opposing the Tories' Brexit plan? While Liam Fox and Michael Gove argue about chlorinated chickens, and other Tories weigh up a leadership challenge, Labour should be making hay. Instead, Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell appear to support a hard Brexit while pretty much everyone else in Labour opposes it. There could be trouble down the track for Corbyn on this one, as some within Labour could try to force a vote on single market membership at the party conference in the autumn.

After the election, Labour looked set to unite behind Corbyn, but they're starting to look divided again. Is it a coincidence that the Tories are now [1.94] favourites to win the next general election, with Labour out to [1.99]?


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