Submitted by Yanis Varoufakis – The Yanis Varoufakis Blog
The year 2015 did not begin – or end – as Yanis Varoufakis might have predicted. This time last year, having finished a busy academic term at the University of Texas in Austinwhere he was a visiting professor in economics, he had flown to Australia for a holiday. Varoufakis has a teenage daughter with his first wife – the pair now live in Sydney – and he was hoping, as he puts it, “to have a quiet time”.
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The Fates, or the European Central Bank, or the Greek electorate, had other plans. Five years after a collapse in confidence over Greece’s ability to repay its debts plunged the country into a calamitous economic crisis, the weakened government of prime minister Antonis Samaras called a surprise January general election.
The telegenic Varoufakis had a certain profile in his home country as an academic economist and TV pundit, though he had no party-political background. But he had privately agreed with members of the radical leftwing party Syriza that if it was elected, he would serve in their government. Varoufakis had been convinced, however, that nothing could happen before March – and even then believed Samaras might do enough to hang on.
Instead, Syriza took nearly half the seats in the Greek parliament promising to “end the vicious cycle of austerity”, and the holidaying professor – having been yanked back from Sydney to Athens carrying nothing more than his summer clothes – was sworn in as finance minister of a “bankrupt” country undergoing a bailout programme that he describes as “the most catastrophic failure in economic history”.
There followed six rollercoaster months in which the shaven-headed, motorcycling economist-politician swept around the capitals of northern Europelike a brainier Bruce Willis; determined, if not to die hard, at least to resist further austerity measures and secure a new economic settlement for Greece.
He quickly won himself a rockstar following among many of the continent’s voters by preaching an alternative to austerity measures that he described as “fiscal waterboarding” and “terrorism”. But to the careful bankers and bureaucrats of the troika of Greece’s creditors – the European Central Bank, the EU and the International Monetary Fund – Varoufakis was less a novelty than an irritant, and finally an obstacle, to the deal they were determined to make.
Eventually, he was sidelined from negotiations by his own prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, and resigned in early July, sweeping out of the finance ministry in a fittingly unconventional manner on his beloved motorbike.
Europe’s paymasters may been immovable even in the face of a Greek referendum rejecting austerity, insisting on futher brutal belt-tightening in return for a third bailout, but Varoufakis does not see what happened to his country as inevitable. He blames his own side for failing to stand their ground and defend what he insists was a “moderate, nuanced position”. He has accused Tsipras of “surrendering” and betraying the Greek people by accepting the bailout deal.
“I regret that we were a failure. A heroic failure, but a failure nonetheless.” Does he mean his own negotiations, or the entire Syriza project? “Well, the two are intertwined.”
Life has hardly been quiet for Varoufakis since. He writes constantly – “it’s my therapy,” he says – and is in huge demand for speaking engagements, charging a small number of commercial clients thousands of euros per speech (“to maintain my economic independence from vested interests”) and most others “the radical number zero”.
He has appeared on a platform with John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, and met withJeremy Corbyn a few times, but reports that he is an “advisor” to the Labour leader overstate the relationship, he says.
“Well, we’re very close politically,” he says “and the chemistry is excellent. We’re on the same page on almost everything.” Almost? “I have my own perspective on what European capitalism means.” While Varoufakis has an “iron clad” opposition to austerity, he says, he thinks leftwing parties should stop talking about it, and focus instead on a determinedly positive, pro-investment, pro-innovation narrative.
Are there lessons Corbyn could take from the Syriza experience? “I think it’s important to broaden one’s appeal and to create a coalition with entrepreneurs who are investing in things that would mobilise Labour in a productive and creative way,” he says. “I think this is essential for Labour. If it succeeds in doing this, it has a chance. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
Varoufakis may not have managed to achieve what he hoped to this time last year, but that doesn’t mean he is limiting his ambitions for 2016. Together with “a variety of good folks across Europe”, he is now directing his energies into setting up “a pan-European democratic movement, call it a party, call it what you will,” that transcends national political parties.