After years of economic turmoil, a near-Grexit, a looming Brexit, and a refugee crisis that challenges the very principle of open borders, it’s safe to say that the European Union is struggling. According to Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s unforgettable former minister of finance, the only way to stop the EU’s complete disintegration is to further democratize it: On Feb. 9, the fiery economist established a pan-European movement called DiEM25, aimed at bringing greater democracy and transparency to the EU. Supporters include Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, musician Brian Eno, philosopher Slavoj Žižek and MIT theorist Noam Chomsky.
Varoufakis spoke to Quartz about his star-studded movement and how it hopes to fix the EU.
Quartz: DiEM25 is not a political party. It’s not a think tank, organization or interest group—you call it a movement. What does that mean?
Varoufakis: The idea for DiEM25 was born last summer, immediately after the crushing of the Athens Spring and Europe’s spectacular failure to respond in a united and humane way to the refugee crisis. In this sense, DiEM25 was our collective response to the realization that the European Union is at an advanced stage of disintegration, that this disintegration will only benefit misanthropy, xenophobia and toxic nationalism, and, finally, that the only way of preventing such frightful developments is by democratizing the EU’s institutions through the formation of a pan-European, cross-border movement that inspires into collective action democrats independently of whether they come from the Green, radical left, liberal or progressive conservative traditions.
As you say, DiEM25 is not a party. It is a cross-border movement providing the political infrastructure to Europe’s committed democrats to come together, independently of party affiliation or nationality, to have the conversation we need on how jointly and systematically to confront Europe’s systemic crisis. If and when a pan-European consensus emerges, I am sure it will find a way of expressing itself electorally in our different countries.
How do you make sure that the movement doesn’t only appeal to an intellectual left, but also engages the people who are actually losing their jobs or trying to offer humanitarian solutions to refugees?
This is a crucial question. If DiEM25 fails to appeal to the people on life’s barricades, it will simply wither. The answer is that DiEM25 came into being precisely because the people you refer to seem eager to be part of such a movement. A movement that offers an overarching narrative within which their private and communal trials and tribulations make sense. A movement within which they can invest their individual and collective energies towards some common European cause that makes their endeavors seem worthy, rather than in vain.
DiEM25 has been criticized for being too melodramatic and cynical in tone, and its agenda has been criticized for aiming too high. How do you answer that?
Criticism is the salt of the earth. DiEM25 is open to criticism, as long as it is well-meant and constructive. To answer this particular criticism, it is important to distinguish between the impassioned and the melodramatic, between the principled and the emotive.
As for the accusation of cynicism, it is our view that the cynicism is fully “owned” by the EU institutions, something I witnessed in person while observing the contempt with which the bureaucracy and the institutions treated real problems of real European citizens, as well as their democratic rights.
What is the first actual task on DiEM25’s agenda?
DiEM25 is organizing as a grassroots movement around six major themes, each of which will result in a DiEM25 Assembly. The six Assemblies will take place within 18 to 24 months and each will result in a DiEM25 Policy Paper. Together, these six Policy Papers will constitute DiEM’s Program for Europe. To ensure maximum participation in it creation, before each Assembly there will be many smaller meetings across Europe to discuss the Assembly’s themes, there will be petitions, interventions in the media, cultural events etc.
The first Assembly is taking place on March 21st to 23rd, in Rome, focusing on DiEM25’s Transparency in Europe, Now! campaign. Besides the launching of DiEM25-Italia, our Rome Assembly will kick start a petition demanding that all EU-level decision-making be exposed to European citizens’ gaze, that meetings of the European Council, ECOFIN, Eurogroup, FTT, ESM etc. become accessible to Europeans, that all documents and protocols related to the crucial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTiP) negotiations between the US and the EU, be uploaded on the Internet etc.
The other five DiEM25 Assemblies, that will follow after Rome, will focus on the themes that are already outlined in our Manifesto: (1) Imagining a democratic European Union Constitution, (2) Open Europe—Overcoming the fear of migrants and refugees, (3) Labor, its value and the distribution of income, (4) The European Green New Deal and Europe’s monetary system, (5) Green transition and Europe’s technological sovereignty.
Will a potential Brexit influence the DiEM25 agenda?
It will be devastating for Europe and, as such, it cannot leave DiEM25 unaffected. If the LEAVE campaign win, Europe’s disintegration will speed up and, naturally, DiEM25 will have to re-assess the situation and, of course, its agenda and strategy. Having said that, my fear is that the British will vote to stay out of fear, not hope. This will be almost as terrible as Brexit.
You were very firm about refusing to accept more cuts superimposed by the Troika while you were the minister of finance in Greece, which ultimately resulted into you leaving office. What would you say to someone accusing you of not being able to compromise?
That there is a profound difference between a readiness to compromise (which I was putting on display in every negotiation) and a readiness to surrender to a misanthropic deal that would condemn my people to many more years of our Great Depression while guaranteeing that our real creditors (i.e. European taxpayers) would get less back than I was proposing.
Put simply, the only thing I was not willing to do is to be compromised by accepting more extend-and-pretend loans under conditions that guaranteed that Greece would not be able to repay them.
How does the refugee crisis not serve as a dismissive argument of the EU? Do you have an optimistic counter argument to offer to people who are ready to drop the European idea altogether?
There is no doubt that the refugee crisis is a blot on the EU’s record. Future generations of Europeans will feel embarrassed and saddened by Europe’s current moral and political failure to respond humanely to this humanitarian crisis. But would things improve if we allowed this highly problematic EU to implode? My answer is that, no, they would not.
This interview has been edited.