From Brexit to Prespes

From Brexit to Prespes

“Theresa May survives no-confidence vote, but Britain remains in a deadlock,” wrote the Guardian newspaper, commenting on the narrow victory (325 against 306) won by the embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May in the House of Commons on Jan. 16. Just a day before she had suffered the biggest defeat in her country’s recent parliamentary history over her Brexit-plan, which would have detailed the divorce proceedings between Britain and the EU.

On the other end of Europe, last Wednesday, too, the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had also survived a crucial no-confidence vote he sought from the parliament after his coalition partner left the government.

He won by just one vote - 151 in favor against 148 - but only thanks to the extra six votes he secured from opposition deputies. Commenting on the survival of the Tsipras government, the oldest Greek daily ESTIA called it “A Pyrrhic new majority without the confidence of the people.”

Yet for both prime ministers, to secure the confidence of the parliament was not their primary aim. For May, her major test and likely survival will come on Monday when she will have to present her new updated Brexit plan, since the last one was crushed down by the opposition and part of her deeply divided party.

She is desperately seeking help from EU leaders for more time, for more leniency, for softer measures for Britain. Is it so simple?

The dilemma of whether Britain should be part of Europe, which most Brits still call “the  Continent,” is much broader than the technicalities of a Britain-EU divorce.

The debate on whether Britain belongs to Europe or should remain an independent island state goes back to ancient times.

It is an issue of identity, culture and perceptions; hence, it cannot be contained in a logical context even if the figures presented by technocrats show  that Britain would be worse off outside the EU.

Brexit is a recent variation of the same existential British problem against Europe, that has divided the whole British society irrespectively of status, income or politics.

Since she came to power, May has been consuming all her time first to get rid of her opponents in her party and then to work single handed without consulting the opposition in order to devise the best Britain-EU divorce plan, have it approved by parliament and thus secure her longevity in power. But is it so easy?

Tsipras’ narrow victory merits also a closer look.

He took a calculating risk this week by asking for a vote of confidence once his coalition partner, the right nationalist leader of Independent Greeks Panos Kammenos, announced that he is walking out of the coalition in disagreement with the “Prespes Agreement.”

Although Kammenos had declared his objection to the agreement long ago, his final decision to leave the government gave a serious shock to Tsipras who is now left alone with a minority government, at the moment when the highly contentious national issue of the “Macedonia” name is to be debated before the Greek parliament through the “Prespes Agreement.”

It was the speed by which the government in Skopje passed the necessary amendments through the parliament that caused a political avalanche in Athens.

The Prespes agreement between the governments in Athens and Skopje was signed back in June last year under the enthusiastic approval of NATO and the EU where Skopje is hoping to be admitted as a member.

It provided as a condition a series of constitutional amendments by Skopje, the most important of which was the change of the country’s name to “North Macedonia.”

A final version of the Prespes Agreement with the required constitutional amendments was endorsed by the Skopje parliament this week, and it is to be sent to Athens to be debated and voted by the Greek parliament next week.

There are similarities between Brexit and “Macedonia” issues. Rightly or wrongly, they both refer to deeply seeded feelings and perceptions of identity, culture and history.

And experience has shown that when it comes to perceptions of historical enmities people are more likely to stick to them rather than be persuaded by promises of their politicians for a peaceful and prosperous collaboration with their former enemies.

And it is tough to change the mind of somebody who feels strongly of being “a true Brit” or “a true Macedonian” even
ignoring the wise advice by any Brussels technocrat or NATO strategist.

That is why it is not so important whether a revised Brexit plan is finally approved in the Commons or whether the Prespes Agreement wins enough votes to be endorsed by the Greek parliament and be applied soon.

What is important is that both Mrs. May and Tsipras should keep their channels open even with their toughest political opponents - something that neither did - in order to give full information and suggest best solutions so that society can overcome the barriers of ignorance and misunderstanding.

Only that way their projects can hope for longevity and so can they last in power.