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Yanis Varoufakis and his plan to take on Europe - again


the global conversation

Yanis Varoufakis and his plan to take on Europe - again

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis locked horns with the European establishment, and ultimately had to stand down. But now the bad boy of European politics is back with a vengeance – launching a new pan-European movement that he says aims to bring democracy back to EU decision making.

Who is Yanis Varoufakis?

  • Yanis Varoufakis is a Greek economist
  • He shot to fame when he became Greek Finance Minister in January 2015
  • He clashed with the Troika and EU leaders over the third bailout for Greece
  • He left the Greek government in July 2015 over disagreement over the third bailout
  • In February 2016 he launched the DiEM25 movement
  • He is a motorcycle enthusiast

To discuss the future, as well as the thorny past, Varoufakis joined euronews’ Isabelle Kumar in Athens for the Global Conversation.

Isabelle Kumar, euronews: “There are a lot of EU-bashing movements, political groupings, on the right but also on the left, what makes DiEM25 different?”

Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek finance minister: “Well it’s not an EU-bashing movement, it’s a movement the purpose of which is to save the EU from itself. The EU is disintegrating everywhere we look, along the borders, the various borders. We have new borders, new fences, new demands for electrified obstacles for freedom of movement. We have new divisions springing up in people’s minds, governments that are turning inwards, and hostile to the idea of solidarity in the European Union. We have a eurozone that is disintegrating very fast.”

euronews: “This brings me to a question because we have asked our social media audience to send us in questions for this interview. And someone called Jefferson Matewa asks: ‘How do you envision the future of the European Union?’ Take us 10 years forward if things don’t change?”

Varoufakis: “It (EU) won’t exist, it will be a kind of farcical version of the Soviet Union. Of course, thankfully the European Union is still a realm of personal liberty – we don’t have the KGB and we don’t have the Gulag – but the similarities are too close for comfort. Think about it, the Soviet Union was an economically non viable entity. which was kept together through political will and authoritarianism. The more you keep together a large entity – a multi-national entity, which cannot survive – and you do this through authoritarianism, the closer you get to an implosion. And the costs of that implosion are magnificently high. This is our great fear.”

euronews: “But do you not think that’s a bit extreme? Do you not think that by taking such an extreme view of things you are going to lose support?”

Varoufakis: “Well, sometimes you need to exaggerate in order to make a point. There’s no doubt there is an exaggeration in this, but it is not extreme at all. All the important decisions have been shifted to the level of Brussels and Frankfurt, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, the European Stability Mechanism, which is a purely democracy-free zone.”

euronews: “That’s debatable, is it not?”

Varoufakis: “That’s why we are having a conversation. But I have no doubt if you were with me during the period when I was in those meetings you would have agreed with me. There is contempt for democracy in those centres, contempt.”

euronews: “So, you’ve actually have said that you would like to have those closed door meetings filmed.”

Varoufakis: “Absolutely…”

euronews: “ … and so if they had been, if those tense (bailout) meetings in the summer had been filmed, do you think history would have taken a different course?”

Varoufakis: “Yes.”

euronews: “Why?”

Varoufakis: “Let me put it this way, I heard things being said in there by ministers and senior bureaucrats that would never have been said if the people who put them there – who pay their salaries, who vote for them – were watching and hearing them.”

euronews: “Give me one example, one flagrant example.”

Varoufakis “Okay, when I was presented on the 25 June (2015), representing Greece as its finance minister, with an ultimatum from the Troika regarding the fiscal policy we should accept – the reforms, the funding model and so on. I started a conversation with the head of the European Central Bank, with the German finance minister, with the head of the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and all three of them in there confessed – and I used the word poignantly and knowingly – that this programme would simply not work. I can assure you that that would not have been an ultimatum put to me if our electorates, if public opinion all over the world, if you, as a member of the media were (had been) watching this live.”

euronews: “But they (Troika) say they were willing for compromise and that you tried to have them over a barrel with the referendum that was held – that a compromise was very close.”

Varoufakis: “Well, isn’t this a wonderful reason why our call for the live streaming these meetings is pertinent. Because: ‘They said’, ‘I said’… Why can’t our electorates watch in real time what we actually say?”

euronews: “You apparently recorded them. Did you record those meetings ?

Varoufakis: “I am very proud of having done that, very proud. And anybody can challenge me if they want. The first meeting lasted 10 hours. I can assure you that I got out of it in a haze – dazed and extremely exhausted and stressed. These are very stressful occasions. I would have to come out and give an account to my prime minister of what happened, of who said what when, and to my cabinet, and to my parliament and to the European public. So I asked my secretary for a transcript of what had happened and she said to me: ‘you know, there are no transcripts, there are not minutes, there is no record of what went down.’ I said: ‘what?’ Then I established that this was true, and I thought: ‘Oh, my goodness’. And from that moment onwards I started recording using my phone, for my own record.”

euronews: “Will you release those recordings?”

Varoufakis: “No. I never have. It’s only, the only news you get as to what happened in there is SMSs and various leaks to The Financial Times (newspaper), to here or there by people who were in there. That’s not a way to run a democracy. That is no way top run a decision-making body, whose decisions determine the future of millions, of hundreds of millions, of Europeans.”

euronews: “So let’s go back to your movement DiEM25 because, basically, you want it to be a cross-party movement where you’ll have support from the left and the right. Given that you are very much associated to the radical left, how can that ever be possible?”

Varoufakis: “Well, let’s go back to 1930. A year ago (1929), we had Wall Street collapsing. You know what happened afterwards in Europe, the common currency of the era started fragmenting. It was the gold standard then – it is the euro now. And very soon after that, Europeans started turning against one another with catastrophic results. I think that – probably we’d all agree – that the duty of democrats back then was to bind together, set aside their differences – whether they are pro-market, pro-taxation, against (taxation), left, right, usual things – and stop the slide into the abyss that came later, leading to the Second World War. I think we are in the same kind of situation.”

euronews: “But do you think you’re the right person to spearhead the movement then?”

Varoufakis: “Maybe not. Why doesn’t somebody else do it? I would love to follow somebody else.”

euronews: “So, I’d like to bring in another question from our social media audience – and this comes from someone who goes by the name of Minotavros. And we noticed…”

Varoufakis: “The minotaur has asked the question.”

euronews: “The minotaur has asked the question. But we noticed in some of the social media commentary that there is a bit of a backlash against you in Greece. And his (Minotavros’) question is: ‘How will Varoufakis fix Europe when he broke Greece?’ “

Varoufakis: “Well, there’s an interesting and utterly false embedded in the question, isn’t there? If I had broken Greece then of course I should be in prison, I should be nowhere near the heart of a democratic movement in Europe. But I didn’t break Greece. I’m not that important to begin with. The reason why… by the way, you said that there’s a backlash in Greece against me. Maybe you should look at opinion polls.”

euronews: “How are you standing in the opinion polls?”

Varoufakis: “Not badly, not badly. Even when I was a minister, there was this astonishing clash, (a) disconnect, if you want, between the people on the street, the approval ratings that I had – personally and we as a government – and what the media said. If you were here during the referendum, every single channel, every single newspaper, every single one was portraying me and us (the government) as Mephistopheles, as the people that were destroying Greece. They were warning the Greeks that if they dare vote ‘no’ in the referendum, Armageddon would come. And what did the Greeks do? They voted 62 percent (against bailout deal and austerity measures in referendum in July 2015).”

euronews: “Exactly. So let’s bring it back to the Troika and those negotiations. You were up against some of the most experienced politicians, economists that Europe knows. Did you feel out of your depth in those discussions?”

Varoufakis: “I would have (felt out of my depth) if they had a track record that was respectable. Never before has the IMF gone into a country for five years, together with the European Central Bank and all these wonderful experts in inverted commas – the wonderful or the experts (in inverted commas) or both. And the result was 30 percent loss of national income, the increase of unemployment from eight to 28 percent, a complete collapse of the banking system, money that was borrowed from the European taxpayers, 50 billion to give to the banks – the result however being that the banks were still bankrupt. This was a complete catastrophe. So these people, when I confronted them, I confronted them with immense respect, but nevertheless I could not be respectful of the programme that they had been presiding over.”

euronews: “Is it true that you nearly came to blows with the president of the Eurogroup?”

Varoufakis: “It’s completely false.”

euronews: “Completely false?”

Varoufakis: “Of course completely false. We had disagreements. There was one moment when very mildly both of us raised our voices. This lasted for about five seconds. I’m telling you, I wish there were cameras everywhere in those meetings so you wouldn’t have to rely on what I say and what the others say, and the leaks. In the White House everything is wired. You go to the Lyndon Johnson museum, the presidential museum in Austin, Texas, you go to the presidential library of George W. Bush and you can hear every conversation that was ever made. This is fantastic. Why? Because it means that we, representatives of the people, will always be operating under the scrutiny of their gaze. And this is crucial, and we don’t have this in Europe and we should have (it).”

euronews: “There are a lot of questions that remain and one of the big questions is obviously, did you go of your own will? Were you pushed out by the Troika, by prime minister Alexis Tsipras? What happened?”

Varoufakis: “Well, there are many layers in the proper answer to this. The quick answer is that I resigned. I was invited to stay on in government, and I couldn’t do this when I disagreed wholeheartedly with the conversion of the ‘no’ into a ‘yes’ the day it happened. The Troika were clearly very keen to sideline me and to have me pushed out of the government for a very simple reason, it wasn’t personal. Now, maybe this is something our audience doesn’t know, that these bailout agreements in the eurozone are signed by the finance minister – not by the prime minister, not by the president, not by God and his angels, but by the finance minister. They knew I wouldn’t sign it, so I was an obstacle in the way of extending and pretending – extending the crisis into the future by pretending that we solved it with another unsustainable loan.”

euronews: “I’d like to bring in another question. This is from Eliuas Toumasatos, who says: ‘If you had a second chance as finance minister, what would you do differently?’

Varoufakis: “Well, I’d like to ask a question before I answer this question. Would I have hindsight? Would I know what happened? Because of course with hindsight you do things, everything you do differently.”

euronews: “With hindsight. Let’s say you’ve seen how things have happened. What would you have done differently?”

Varoufakis: “This is a very difficult question. My first dilemma would be whether I would throw my hat in and stand for election and become minister. The second dilemma – if I overcame this in the positive, in the affirmative – the second dilemma would be how do I handle the people in my ministry and in the government who were not on board with the strategy that we had designed? Finally, a mistake that I recognise – and probably I should have not made, even without hindsight – would be my signature on the document on the application for the extension of the Greek agreement until the end of June. And the reason why I’m saying that is because at that stage I did have sufficient evidence that the Troika did not want to honour the spirit of the agreement of the 20 February Eurogroup meeting, which was very important.”

euronews: “So, now Alexis Tsipras has said that Greece is at a turning point, that the economy is going to grow.”

Varoufakis: “I’ve been hearing this for five years, six years now – from various prime ministers who succumbed to a failed programme. It’s not going to happen, there is no evidence of that. I am the first one that would rejoice if there was any evidence of this.”

euronews: “Why is he saying this then?”

Varoufakis: “Why was Mr Samaras saying the same thing in two years ago?”

euronews: “To stay in power? We see that Syriza now is falling behind in the polls behind the New Democracy party.”

Varoufakis: “It’s a combination of things. It is wishful thinking – you and me, we are all prone to wishful thinking – we like to imagine something will happen because we want it to happen. And the allure of power, and an attempt to create animal spirits that are positive by saying good things so that you inspire people. But that won’t work. You need to change the fundamentals as well.”

euronews: “So has (Greek prime minister Alexis) Tsipras and Syriza sold out now then?

Varoufakis: “Look, we of the left have a very long and distressful history of turning against one another of boycotting one another, of denouncing one another, sending each other to the Gulag even, as you will probably remember. And I am the last person who will turn against a comrade like Alexis and badmouth him. We have very serious differences. These are difficult times, I hold on to my views steadfastly, but I should not denounce or cal epithets of that sort my comrades and friends – even if we disagreed and we are no longer comrades.”

euronews: “Anne Laure Poirot asks: ‘Do you regret not being part of government now?’ “

Varoufakis: “No no, not at all. Because anyway, you see, the whole point about being in government, is to effect positive change, to make things better. If the only condition under which you can stay in a ministerial office is to adopt policies which you know will fail, what is the point of doing that? Unless you really like the office and I don’t.”

euronews: “So what did you learn about yourself in your months in power?”

Varoufakis: “What have I learnt about myself? I learnt I can be much calmer than I had imagined, under a barrage of a lot of disconcerting lies. I learnt, I confirmed that I don’t enjoy power, in the end politics is great fun as long as it’s conviction politics.”

euronews: “A friend of mine said you make a great professor but a lousy politician. What would you say to that?

Varoufakis: “Some of my students might say the opposite. I don’t know. I am not the judge of myself.”

euronews: “There has been some discussion, because you obviously did capture the media’s attention, whether you liked it or not. I guess because of your tight T-shirts, riding a motor bike, leather jackets, I don’t know what. But did that go to your head?”

Varoufakis: “No, not in the slightest. It really didn’t. If anything it was an impediment, a distraction and an annoyance, a nuisance for me – because I was trying to do a very difficult job. The moment, the day I moved into the ministry I had a Treasury department meeting and I was told that in 11 or 12 days the Greek state goes bankrupt – that we have to chose between either paying the IMF or paying pensions. When you find yourself in that situation all you need to do is get down to work. So the star system and everything you described was a major nuisance.”

euronews: “But then why did you appear in glossy magazines in your apartment?"

Varoufakis: “That was a big mistake. I can tell you the full story of how that happened. It just goes to show how naive I am when it comes to the media because I had not ever touched a copy of Paris Match in my life. So when I was asked to be interviewed – and I was told it would be a good story and so on – I said: ‘Okay, I will give the interview first and then I will see the script and if I like the text then we can do it.’ And the text was great. But I had never imagined we would have all these glossy pictures. I rushed home, the thing was all set up for me. I had to get out and go to meet in the prime minister in 15 minutes time. I was whizzed through this, I didn’t think twice about it, it was a major mistake. There is no doubt about that, one of the things I regret is this.”

euronews: “One last question about one of these issues that has brought about controversy – is the amount that you charge for speeches you make, that you charge astronomical fees to talk at events. How do you consolidate that with your leftist principles?”

Varoufakis: “Well isn’t it interesting that you read the articles criticising me, but that you did not read my reply which was on my blog and was publicised extensively. You know what my response was? To do what I proclaim that we should all do. Full transparency. So on my blog, I listed 24 (or) 25 talks that I had given since my resignation. I showed that I had been paid for three of them. I gave the figures as to how much money I charged for each one of them. And there you are, so full transparency. So why do I charge for my speaking? Would you rather the expenses of setting up a political system or a political movement be based on secret donations from corporations? Is this transparency? I wish all politicians disclosed the sources of their income like I did.”

euronews: “We began the interview by looking at how Europe could be in 10 years time if nothing changed. If you have the Europe that you would like to see in 10 years time, give me a snapshot of that would look like?”

Varoufakis: “How about a federal Europe, where you have a constitution that we’ve drafted together as a result of convening a constitutional assembly – with representatives of that assembly elected on a pan-European ticket, so the French can vote for Greeks or Germans, or Finns to represent them in this assembly and visa versa. Where we can have a federal government on the basis of a one person one vote system. The question is how do you get there? This is the difficulty. How to arrest the free fall in which we find ourselves in, stabilise the realm of economics, of politics of geopolitics and the divisions – or at least arrest the development of new divisions – and move into a posture where shared prosperity and a shared polity can become common dreams again.”

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