Yanis Varoufakis’ curious second crusade on Europe

Change comes from within
Change comes from within
Image: Reuters/Marko Djurica
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Yanis Varoufakis is tired.

“I need a double vodka,” the former Greek finance minister says, as we walk along a balmy Athens street in search of a bar. It’s 10pm, and he’s just finished speaking to an attentive (if modest) crowd of around 150 people, whose votes he is seeking in the European elections.

The next day (May 23), he’ll fly to Germany at 6am, then return in the evening to Crete, his ancestral home, the day after, and back in Berlin by week’s end. When I ask if he’s surviving, he nods: “Surviving is the right word.”

It’s all in aid of a grand project, which, the 58-year-old “rockstar finance minister” cheerily admits, is “probably going to fail.”

The motorbike-riding, leather jacket-donning economist is best known for his tussle with the European Union at the height of his country’s debt crisis in 2015. Varoufakis returned from a post at the University of Texas at Austin, to run the finance ministry of newly elected radical leftwing party Syriza, with the unlikely goal of convincing the IMF and European institutions (known as the troika) to restructure Greece’s debt. He met a brick wall. After six tumultuous months, Varoufakis was on the way out and Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras was agreeing to even harsher terms set by the troika. He blames his defeat four years ago not on his negotiating tactics, but on Tsipras’ lack of resolve. “There’s nothing worse than having your own comrades betray the cause,” he said last year.

Now, Varoufakis is tilting at the EU’s windmills again. This time, he’s assembled a new, transnational group of comrades under the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025, or DiEM 25, part of an alliance fielding candidates for the European Parliament in seven countries.

DiEM doesn’t lack in ambition. Its aims include: Upending the currently “authoritarian” European establishment; uniting the continent’s fractured left; defeating the “nationalist international,” Varoufakis’ name for the resurgent far-right; and implementing policies to beat climate change, fix the euro, and restructure Europe’s neoliberal economy.

All to be done by 2025.

If Varoufakis is aware of how quixotic the program sounds, it doesn’t seem to faze him. Smaller in person than you’d expect, wearing faded grey jeans, a dark blazer, and crisp white shirt with a mandarin collar, Varoufakis is as combative as ever, as he sips his vodka on a quiet terrace hidden behind one of the city’s main thoroughfares.

“So what?” he says of the project’s likely failure. “I know I’m going to die, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to wake up with a spring in my step in the morning.”

He insists he would be much happier writing policy for the powers-that-be than running for office himself, if only those powers weren’t “too inane” to listen to good ideas. As it is, those with a conscience have to do their best in dire times, he argues. “We are in a postmodern 1930s, but if this was 1930, and let’s say you and I were in Berlin,” he says. “Let’s say that we were smart enough and impressive enough to see [the Holocaust] coming. We would still have a duty to try and prevail.”

Policy not polls

DiEM’s electoral chances don’t quite reach the loftiness of its goals and Varoufakis’ rhetoric. The movement has run a celebrity-heavy campaign, posting flyers of surprising supporter Pamela Anderson all over Berlin, while also marshaling more traditional leftwing thinkers like philosopher Slavoj Zizek, linguist Noam Chomsky, and sociologist Saskia Sassen. At present, however, POLITICO Europe’s poll of polls doesn’t show DiEM or its affiliates picking up a single seat.

Varoufakis himself is running in Germany, having rented an apartment in Berlin to make himself technically resident there. One writer has dubbed the move “an epic troll” on Greece’s creditors, but Varoufakis insists it’s “symbolic.” His candidacy shows “the current struggle is not between the Greeks and Germans,” but “between progressive rational humanist policies…and authoritarianism,” he recently told the Guardian. Others have suggested he’s only running there because you need around 0.6% of the vote to become a German MEP, compared to about 3.5% in Greece.

Despite not registering in German polls, Varoufakis has a shot there, says Michael Broening, head of International Policy at FES, a think tank linked to Germany’s centre-left Social Democrats. “I think we have about nine individual members of the European Parliament right now from German micro-parties—from the Pirates to the editor-in-chief of a satirical magazine,” he says. “It’s a wild mix and they have nine people like that, so maybe we’ll have ten.” The movement may also have upsets in Greece, Poland, and Denmark, but, realistically, electing even a handful of MEPs would be a decent return for DiEM.

It’s perhaps more instructive to think of DiEM as a think tank whose members are running for office to make some noise for their policies. While Varoufakis talks seriously about wanting the movement to achieve its goals by 2025 and be “dissolved” thereafter, others are more sanguine. “Things have to develop over time—this is just a step,” says James Galbraith, an economist at the University of Texas, Austin, who has helped develop DiEM’s policies. “The idea at this point is to get a serious audience from which one can develop, and get some respect for the program.”

That policy program is where DiEM really stands out—especially with Europe’s left otherwise in the doldrums when it comes to big ideas. Varoufakis has made a point of finding innovative ways to tackle poverty, inequality, and climate change without just hiking taxes. He’s assembled a team including Galbraith and vaunted Columbia University economist Jefrey Sachs to do that.

One proposal would redirect the spoils of the European Central Bank’s quantitative easing program towards the poor. Another, the Universal Basic Dividend, suggests requiring any European company that goes public to portion off a percentage of shares for the European people, who will earn annual dividends. DiEM’s “Jobs Guarantee” proposes providing every citizen a job, in a move that they say would cut forced economic migration from Eastern Europe to the West, stop people living on welfare, and train them for private sector work.

Whatever you think of such policies’ feasibility, it’s hard to fault them for creativity.

DiEM’s biggest splash has been its “Green New Deal for Europe,” which Varoufakis says he and others have been working on since 2003. They want to fund a massive investment of 2.5 trillion euros in green industry and infrastructure over five years by having the European Investment Bank issue bonds. The European Central Bank would then guarantee to buy them if their value drops below a certain price. “Given that announcement, and the glut of savings in Europe and around the world, the ECB will not have to spend a single euro, since the EIB bonds will sell out,” Varoufakis writes in DiEM’s manifesto, A Vision For Europe.  

They’re not alone in adopting the “Green New Deal” name—the European Greens and even chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, who’s in the running to be the next European Commission president, have used the title. But, in typically pugnacious fashion, Varoufakis says for people like Barnier, “it’s just a slogan,” since he hasn’t proposed a way to pay for it.

“Where’s the dough? How much? Where from? Unless you can answer those questions, you’re just jumping on the bandwagon—that is equally the same for Barnier, as it is for the Green Party,” he says. “Those who speak about the New Deal don’t understand really what the [1930s] New Deal was. It’s about energizing idle cash, not through taxation, but through various means. Push it in the direction of investment in things that society needs, and to crowd in private industry…that’s what makes it radical, because it’s so pragmatic.”

Try to press Varoufakis on how he wants to actually get these policies adopted, however, and you won’t get far. He is keen to dub the European Parliament one of the most toothless legislatures in the world (it doesn’t even have the power to draft legislation). Instead of focusing on the parliament’s structures, he plans to wield power through what he calls “constructive disobedience:”

“You need to combine sensible, responsible, implementable, realistic proposals and say, ‘No,’ to the generalized austerity, for instance, that the establishment is imposing,” he says. “So, you’re being constructive and you’re being disobedient at the same time.”

It’s a good phrase, but Varoufakis is rather woolly on what that disobedience might entail. “I demonstrated what I mean by disobedience when I was in the Eurogroup—I simply said, ‘No, I’m not signing anything, I’m vetoing everything,’” he says.

However, while finance minister, saying, ‘No,’ actually meant something. As a backbench legislator, it does very little. He also points to the potential for civil disobedience and street protests, but, though DiEM says it has racked up more than 100,000 members, its turnouts at rallies number in the low hundreds, or fewer.

Bridges built and burned

Actually using his position to legislate—and, indeed, to achieve his goal of uniting the European left—would mean building up diverse alliances, massaging egos, and bringing opponents onside. That would be a serious test of Varoufakis’ enigmatic character.

The overriding word used by friends and acquaintances to describe him is “complex.” The cartoonish public image he acquired during the crisis was far from it. The Varoufakis depicted over that time was an arrogant know-it-all who refused to negotiate and went scorched-earth when he didn’t get what he wanted.

“He gave lengthy lectures on this, that, and the other in the [Eurogroup] meetings, and more often than not after he had finished his 10 minutes’ pontifications, he got up and left and went to talk to journalists,” says Thomas Wieser, an Austrian bureaucrat whom Varoufakis has described as both “incredibly boring” and “the most powerful man in Brussels,” having acted as the go-between for Europe’s finance ministers for several years.

“My take was megalomania,” Wieser says of Varoufakis’ character. “I don’t think he is a normal person who is unpleasant—that he is not. I think it’s simply a warped personality. He can’t escape doing what he does.”

In his book Adults in the Room, a riveting account of his spell in office based partly on recordings he secretly made of meetings with officials, Varoufakis argues that the truth was quite the opposite: the EU’s big players were the obstructionists, whose sole aim was to grind Greece into submission. He says when it became apparent that he wouldn’t give any ground, they began a character assassination campaign, briefing journalists with off-the-record lies about him.

In one extraordinary passage, Varoufakis recounts taking Jeffrey Sachs with him to various meetings with top officials, in order to have a witness to counteract the leaks. At the end of a day in which Varoufakis was repeatedly shot down by German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble and top EU figures, Sachs says he exclaimed to Varoufakis: “I must tell you that I have never seen anything like this in my decades of experience with meetings between debtor governments and creditor governments,” he said. “In these meetings you were positive, bringing many important practical solutions. They kept ignoring your ideas, though they were good ideas, and without proposing a single one of their own. Unbelievable!” 1

Friends paint a more nuanced picture of Varoufakis. His public image is “the opposite of who he is,” says Galbraith, who became friends with Varoufakis when they were colleagues in Texas. “He’s a very soft spoken guy in private and very thoughtful.”

Varoufakis seems to inspire immense loyalty among those who have worked for him, even if they don’t sign up to his politics. They talk of his great personal warmth and a prolific work-rate that saw him sending out detailed memos at all hours of the night.

The question of ego is never far away, however. People who deeply admire him tell me, unprompted, that he is a “narcissist.” One friend says, “he always liked to be at the center of attention.” Another notes he was always “provocative…in the sense that he wanted to change things.”

Over our late-night drink, I see tired glimpses of the charm that oozed through television screens in 2015, helping Varoufakis gain a worldwide following. He refuses to touch his much-needed vodka until I’ve been served a beer, needles me about who else I’ve been meeting in Athens, and flashes the occasional trademark wolfish grin.

Also in evidence, though, was the mouthiness that has won him a lot of enemies.

Varoufakis has copped criticism in recent weeks for splitting the leftwing vote in Germany, which already has an established leftist party, Die Linke. Instead of smoothing over these ripples with an eye on future cooperation, Varoufakis merrily blames his erstwhile allies. He reached out to Die Linke and Spain’s Podemos, suggesting they all run together, but says the two parties failed to sign on to a joint program because “they are completely paralyzed by their own divisions.”

“For them, it’s far more important to get elected as part of this bureaucratic machine than to have a policy that can make a difference. So, this is why the European left is utterly insignificant,” he says. “The European left as it is must be dissolved. There’s no point in having those parties any more.”

This habit of publicly criticizing potential allies frustrates his sympathizers. But Varoufakis bristles when I ask if it wouldn’t be politically smarter to stay on good terms with the likes of French president Emmanuel Macron—who supported Varoufakis in 2015—rather than to tell the FT his “impact has been very negative” on Europe.

“What? Nonsense!” he says to the suggestion that he has burned these friends. “They burned themselves. I tried to help them, and I still remain more positive about them than they deserve.”

Perennial outsider

This refusal to play the political game is part of a trend in Varoufakis’ recent career. He opens Adults in the Room by recounting a furtive April 2015 meeting in a Washington bar with former US Treasury secretary Larry Summers. As they make to leave, Summers gives Varoufakis a little speech:

“There are two types of politicians,” he said, according to Varoufakis. “Insiders and outsiders. The outsiders prioritize their freedom to speak their own version of the truth. The price of their freedom is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions. The insiders, for their part, follow a sacrosanct rule: never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what insiders say or do. Their reward? Access to inside information and a chance, though no guarantee, of influencing powerful people and outcomes.”

Asked which camp he belongs to, Varoufakis reports telling Summers he is naturally an outsider but would suppress those instincts to get Greece what it needed. “But if the insiders I am dealing with prove unwilling to release Greece from its eternal debt bondage, I will not hesitate to turn whistle-blower on them—to return to the outside, which is my natural habitat anyway,” he recalls saying.

Needless to say, Varoufakis did just that—not least in his take-no-prisoners memoir. He seems destined to remain in that outsider role for the rest of his political career. Despite his stated desire to make sweeping changes to the fabric of European society, little about Varoufakis gives the impression of actually wanting high office or the compromises it entails.

“It’s true that he’s a person of two minds about the political role,” says Galbraith. “On the one hand, he’s not motivated by the drive for office. On the other hand, in order to do what you feel needs to be done, you have to stand for office and you have to contest elections, and you have to hold the position once you win it and you’ll have to pursue your agenda from within that framework. So he has, I think, accepted the necessity of doing what he has to do.”

But in his latest gambit, he doesn’t actually plan on holding his position and working within its confines. Varoufakis would doubtless electrify Brussels’ staid politics with his punk-politician profile, global following, and penchant for phrases like “fiscal waterboarding” and “Ponzi austerity.” But, curiously, after a few weeks there he plans to shove a pin in his own balloon, handing that seat to his comrade, Austro-German economist Daniela Platsch. He’ll then leave Europe’s capital and return to its provinces, running in Greece’s parliamentary elections later in the year.

“I’ll go and fight the nation state battle here in the next national election,” he says. “I don’t know what happens next—maybe I can go and fight Boris Johnson in Britain after that. Or in France. This is what transnational politics is about: it’s not about securing a little position in Brussels in a parliament that cannot legislate and saying, ‘Ok, I’m going to be stuck there for five years.’”

It would be an abortive, itinerant life with precious little chance of ever achieving legislative success. At present, however, there’s not really a pressing need for DiEM 25 as an electoral force in Europe, argues Paul Mason, a leftwing British journalist who wrote the introduction to one of Varoufakis’ books.

“A pan-national movement in a multilateral state that is weakening—it’s a nice thing to have but it’s not the most important thing. If you look at Spain, the most important thing is to have a left government and not a right government…the German Bundestag doesn’t need DiEM 25, it needs a strong left party and a revived Social Democratic party,” says Mason, author most recently of Clear Bright Future.

But the strange, peripatetic role he seems to be taking on might just be the best use of his talents. Varoufakis is not a natural politicker, but, whatever you think of his ideas, there’s no doubt he’s a deeply intelligent and creative thinker, with a unique ability for explaining complex economic concepts. Freeing himself from the constraints of party political machinery allows him to do and say what he wants, and actually taps into an old leftwing practice, Mason says.

“There’s a long tradition on the left of using elections to be what was called a ‘tribune of the people,’” he says. “You’re not really bothered about winning, you’re using an election to gain a platform.”

Such, perhaps, is a fitting destiny for Varoufakis. A 21st century preacher-on-horseback, traversing Europe on his motorbike, firing off a mixture of out-the-box ideas and devastatingly poetic barbs, before riding off to his next starry-eyed crusade.