Mind your language: Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis may be fun, but his controversial running commentary – “fiscal waterboarding”, “bankrupt country” etc – has meant the new Greek government has used up a lot of political capital with EU partners for zero diplomatic benefit. The Tories are slowly learning this lesson (for example by not singling out individual countries when discussing immigration).

Don’t negotiate via the media: Syriza – like Number 10 up until recently – has a tendency to write the headline first, and the content later. I can think of no example when this has actually worked in terms of winning concessions in Europe. First get a sensible policy that squares your democratic mandate and its negotiability in Europe (admittedly a hard thing to pull off) , then go to the media.


Beware of shopping lists: At least premature ones. Syriza has been forced to climb down on a series of specific election pledges. David Cameron is right to have kept most of his powder dry before the election, sticking to broader principles while still giving voters a clear choice.

Know the incentives of your partners: Syriza’s gamble on austerity fatigue translating into support from other countries totally mis-judged the politics in the rest of Southern Europe whose taxpayers also own plenty of Greek debt. This was then then exacerbated by Syriza’s rhetoric – once potential allies, Spain and Portugal have now registered a complaint with the European Commission after Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras accused them of forming part of a German-led “axis”. For Cameron’s EU reform drive to work, a big chunk of his policies must match the domestic politics, arguments and incentives in as many other EU states as possible.

Prepare the ground: In turn, for that to work, as David Frost noted in his pamphlet for Open Europe, the key is to convince others that what you’re asking for is the ‘normal’ – not an eccentric demand. Also, no matter how outrageously self-interested, make it sound pro-European – a skill mastered by the likes of France and Spain. This requires a lot of groundwork on all levels, from government to media. Syriza, in part because of time pressure beyond its control, had none of that and paid a high price. One of the most common criticisms of Cameron’s reform drive is the lack of this sort of preparation – this is why UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s ongoing “reform tour” of Europe is so important.

A marathon, not a sprint: Fundamental change takes time. As Tsipras may have concluded by now, you cannot make 22 EU leaders discard their ties over-night (only five of the 28 are women). Syriza was naïve in believing it could change so much in such a short period of time. Cameron would be unwise to hold the referendum in 2016.

Not you or Berlin: If you force others to choose between you and Germany, then, as Gary Lineker may have put it, EU negotiations become a very simple game: in the end, Germany wins. Agree the contours of the deal with Berlin first, then go to Europe.

Don’t mention the war: Just don’t.