Yanis Varoufakis: never stop lecturing

The former Greek finance minister now commands hefty speaking fees. He comes to Kilkenny on Thursday, when he may share his plan for a grassroots European citizens’ movement

Yanis Varoufakis was always cast as chief swordsman for prime minister Alexis Tsipras but close observers say the Syriza machine saw him more as ‘brainy and useful’ than a core backroom figure.  Photographs: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek

Yanis Varoufakis was always cast as chief swordsman for prime minister Alexis Tsipras but close observers say the Syriza machine saw him more as ‘brainy and useful’ than a core backroom figure. Photographs: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek

 

Yanis Varoufakis divides people. Anti-austerity proponents hailed him as a messiah of sorts when he became finance minister of Greece last January, their hopes all the greater for the uncompromising potency of his rhetoric.

Varoufakis sought a radical new deal for his debt-addled country, whose finances are in turmoil. Yet the campaign ran into a wall of European resistance as fellow-ministers railed against his righteous, overbearing style.

Little more than five months passed before Varoufakis was replaced. He’s out of office now, but he’s still talking. Varoufakis is not man for silence.

The voluble “erratic Marxist” is a denizen of the conference circuit these days, his views widely sought on the Greece debacle, Europe, the vicissitudes of the political and economic worlds and whatever else might surface.

He’s box office too. A public interview next Thursday at the Kilkenomics festival in Kilkenny with Irish economist David McWilliams is a sell-out.

This week the former minister made headlines when it emerged – via the Greek newspaper Proto Thema – that his rate for a single speech given “outside Europe” is up to $60,000 (€54,000). Business-class travel is also required, apparently.

Making a mint

The speaking rate within Europe is $5,000, or $1,500 for a university lecture. “The man who contributed to the Greek economy’s catastrophe by obstructing talks with international creditors and leading the country to capital controls is making a mint,” the paper reported.

Varoufakis is managed by the London Speaker Bureau, a top-flight agency whose speakers include former president Mary Robinson, former taoiseach John Bruton, former minister Ruairí Quinn and other notables including former London mayor Ken Livingstone, former Tory minister Michael Portillo and former Spanish premier José Luis Zapatero.

“We don’t make any comment on any speakers,” said a spokeswoman for the London bureau when asked about Varoufakis.

But Varoufakis isn’t done with politics, far from it.

He now plans a pan-European movement to overhaul the EU’s institutions, saying his experience of euro zone meetings led him to the conclusion that the EU was not democratic.

“It sounds utopian, but this idea cemented in my mind in August when I started travelling across Europe, and realised that there was a great deal of hunger and thirst everywhere I went for such an idea,” he said in a long interview on the openDemocracy website last weekend.

Manifesto

Varoufakis is preparing a manifesto with colleagues – to be published by Christmas – but he wouldn’t say who he was working with. “I’m not going to give you names, and we will not sign it when we launch it. It will be a free floating text,” he said.

So far, so cryptic, but Varoufakis cites support for his latest endeavour in Portugal, Spain, Germany, Austria, and among the Corbynites at the helm of Britain’s Labour party.

“This is not going to be a coalition of parties. It should be a coalition of citizens. They can belong to any party they want. This will not admit parties into it.

“It is not a party and it is not an alliance of parties. The idea is to create a grassroots movement across Europe of European citizens interested in democratising Europe. They can belong to any party.”

It seems we will be hearing rather a lot more from the combative 54-year-old, who spent practically 30 years in academic economics before his rapid political ascent and equally rapid descent.

It is rare enough for any economist to transcend the arcane confines of the field; Varoufakis burst onto the global scene when Greece’s radical left Syriza movement secured a landslide election victory at the start of this year.

Virtually overnight, Varoufakis became something of an international celebrity with instant name-recognition around the world.

He was always cast as chief swordsman for prime minister Alexis Tsipras but close observers say the Syriza machine saw him more as “brainy and useful” than a core backroom figure.

He quickly went from obscurity to the bright lights. It helped that Varoufakis spoke with aplomb in English and had an adept way with words. He could be as caustic as he was fiery.

His description of Greece’s “asphyxiation” at the hands of creditors was but one of many memorable expressions he used to describe the country’s plight.

Another, after he left office, was his likening of the latest funding agreement for Greece to the Versailles treaty, which forced crushing reparations on Germany after the first World War.

His global fame was fanned by his urbane Mediterranean charm, his shaven head, his leather jacket and his speedy motorbike, all of which smacked of something fresh in the stale ministerial milieu.

Regular tweeting

The same goes for his regular tweeting: the grand tally of messages from his personal account is more than 7,250. Finance ministers do not typically appear in glamorous photo-shoots in Paris Match but Varoufakis and his wife invited the glossy magazine into their Athens home on a sunny day in March, when Greece was deep in crisis.

None of this helped in the negotiation chamber, where Varoufakis quickly found himself in a minority of one among 19 ministers as he pressed a reluctant Germany to write off some of the voluminous Greek debt.

In the manner of the university teacher he was for many years, Varoufakis tended to lecture his counterparts. This did not go down well – and neither did the rock-star dimension, which met with scorn.

“We all studied game theory at college. We know how it works. We don’t need to be lectured about it,” said one figure.

Sympathy for the country was not matched by action to relieve the burden of its debts, most of which are due to other euro zone member states.

Argument about the Greek democratic mandate met counter-argument about the lack of parliamentary support in other countries for debt write-downs that would impose a burden on taxpayers elsewhere.

If the dire situation in Greece could be traced back to mistakes made long before Syriza took power, Varoufakis astonished his counterparts from other countries with his plans to engage tourists to spy on tax evaders by wearing hidden cameras. His public declaration that he had recorded sensitive euro zone meetings on his phone met a similar response.

Secret preparations

There was anger, too, in Greece when it emerged he had made secret preparations to hack into citizens’ tax codes to create a parallel payment system.

The disclosure, confirmed by Varoufakis himself, illustrated just how close the country came to leaving the single currency as it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy during the summer.

“Inevitably, at one level, there’s the academic economist catapulted into the world of hard knocks. When that’s an ideologically-driven economist it’s even more tricky,” says one individual who has seen Varoufakis in action.

But where did he go wrong particularly? “Not looking for allies, which you have to do. He used to be out of the meetings most of the time, not out in a visibly productive sense. You’ve got to work the room.”

For all the razzmatazz around Varoufakis, Alexis Tsipras sidelined him after three months by appointing a new “political negotiation team” to conduct talks with the country’s creditors.

Varoufakis resigned in July – to facilitate talks – after Greeks rejected bailout terms in a referendum.

As he appointed his successor, Tsipras didn’t hold back on his outgoing minister’s failings. “Varoufakis was talking but nobody paid any attention to him,” the premier said. “They had switched off, they didn’t listen to what he was saying . . . He didn’t say anything bad but he had lost his credibility among his interlocutors.”

Yanis Varoufakis talks to David McWilliams at St Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny on November 5th. The event is sold out. For more events at next week’s Kilkenomics festival, see kilkenomics.com