Yanis Varoufakis: The EU might be doomed but I opposed Brexit even so

Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, speaks to Ben Lowry at Catalyst Arts Gallery in Belfast, Friday February 24 2017, ahead of his later appearance at the Crescent Arts Centre
Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, speaks to Ben Lowry at Catalyst Arts Gallery in Belfast, Friday February 24 2017, ahead of his later appearance at the Crescent Arts Centre

YANIS VAROUFAKIS was Greece’s finance minister in 2015 when the country was on the verge of being pushed out of the euro, visited Belfast last week to promote a pan-European movement DiEM25. The man who has described himself as an “erratic Marxist” spoke to News Leter deputy editor BEN LOWRY. This is the first of a three-part interview:

Yanis Varoufakis is both a Eurosceptic and a Euro federalist.

President Donald Trump speaks on the phone  in the Oval Office of the White House, which very few pundits thought he would reach this time last year. Yanis Varoufakis says Mr Trump ticks a lot of things that are needed in a politician but he is still terrible because he then does the wrong thing in office (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

President Donald Trump speaks on the phone in the Oval Office of the White House, which very few pundits thought he would reach this time last year. Yanis Varoufakis says Mr Trump ticks a lot of things that are needed in a politician but he is still terrible because he then does the wrong thing in office (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The left-wing economist and thinker, who was Greece’s flamboyant finance minister at the height of the 2015 euro crisis in the country, is opposed to the European Union as it currently stands but ultimately he wants to see a Europe without borders.

Varoufakis, 56, spoke to the News Letter on Friday, hours before his talk at Belfast’s Crescent Arts centre as part of his work with Diem 25 – a new movement that says it has a ‘simple, but radical, idea: to democratise Europe’.

Varoufakis stayed up all night on June 23 into June 24 in Greece, to watch the results from the UK referendum.

How did he feel in his heart at the Brexit outcome?

“Well I have to say that I allowed myself a few moments of satisfaction at the thought of all that egg on the establishment’s face,” he says.

Varoufakis had campaigned across the UK in favour of Remain, but did not come to this Province. “I didn’t need to because Northern Ireland was in the bag.”

He speculates that the leading Conservative politician Boris Johnson was not in heart a convinced Leave supporter but backed Brexit on the grounds that the country would narrowly reject it, and he would become Tory leader “without having to deal with Brexit”, but on the strength of the Brexiteer feeling in the Conservative Party.

“And he collapsed after the result because he realised he would have to deal with Brexit and it’s an impossible conundrum.”

Why so hard?

“The disentangling any European country from the EU is, you know I keep quoting Hotel California, you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.

“There are ways of doing it but it would take more than a decade to do it properly.”

Second part of interview: We leftists are not necessarily pro public sector – Marx was anti state

Final part: The IRA was terrorism but so was the campaign of the British army

Varoufakis was only Greece’s finance minister for six months but became famous for his glamorous image and unconventional approach. He was the rock star economist-politician, defying the Euro elites on behalf of Greece’s radical Syriza party.

Varoufakis led the Greek resistance to the demands of Greece’s creditors during the financial crisis in the country of that year, one of a number of crises in Greece that have led to ongoing fears that it will have to crash out of the single currency or be pushed out.

His tenure in the finance post ended that summer when Athens failed to strike a deal with the creditors and called a referendum on whether to agree to demands of the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund.

The country said no, the result that Varoufakis had campaigned for, but he resigned anyway. It later emerged that this was because the Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was going to surrender to creditor demands in any event.

It is his experience of negotiating with the EU that makes him so convinced that Brexit will be so difficult.

“Any attempt to do it quickly is going to be a nightmare and the most important difficulty is that it is impossible to negotiate with Brussels,” he says. “I know that personally. There will be no negotiations between London and Brussels, anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or they don’t know how Brussels works.”

The problem, he explains, is that there is no clear leader with whom to negotiate – the problem cited by the American powerbroker Henry Kissinger who once asked: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?”

Varoufakis says: “If Jean-Claude Juncker [president of the EC] and I agreed on something, and we did agree on many things, with the Commission, when he wanted to help me I knew I was going to be clobbered by Berlin, not so much because Berlin had a problem with me but because they wanted to teach Juncker a lesson, that he should not overstep his mark.

“Then in Berlin who do you speak to? Angela Merkel [the chancellor] or Wolfgang Schäuble [German finance minister]? They loathe one another. You find a common ground with Merkel, Schäuble will find a way of undermining it.”

But does this lack of strong core at the heart of the EU mean that the very entity is doomed?

“Well the way it is going yes,” he says. “It can be rationalised, it can be civilised and it can be rendered sustainable.

“Technically it is really very straightforward to do but given the political forces at work it seems pretty doomed to me.”

The ideal of a single country called Europe appeals to Varoufakis, and that is why he gave his weight to the campaign to persuade British voters not to leave the EU.

Asked his views on Irish unity and whether or not it is legitimate for unionists in Northern Ireland to want to be part of the UK (see more on his answer to that tomorrow) he says that he will tell anyone what identity they should have, and adds:

“My view would be that, ideally, Europe should be one country and then this discussion doesn’t happen.”

Borders, he says, do not make for happy families and happy societies anywhere.

So he would to see like a federal Europe?

“Yes, absolutely.”

Like America with countries becoming like the states in the US?

“We could create a federation that has never happened before. A better federation than the ones the Americans have. The Americans don’t have an idea for theirs, just look at Trump, but I think, so [a federal Europe] would be my first view.”

Specifically in Northern Ireland, it would be “criminal” to do anything to jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement.

“Bringing back a border and having Northern Ireland be committed to the Brexiteer frenzy coming from the other side of the pond would be madness.”

Varoufakis has a similarly ambivalent view of the single currency that he has to the whole of the EU. That it is, in practice, deeply flawed but that deciding to leave altogether is a step too far.

“I campaigned in the 1990s against joining the euro, but it is one thing to say you should not get in, it is another thing to say you should get out.”

He explains. “I keep thinking in terms of Indiana Jones movies when Indiana Jones rushes into a building and behind him the pathway collapses, and if he tries to reverse he is not going to back to where he was – he will fall off a cliff.”

If Greece had not joined the euro the country “would still be quasi corrupt, it would still be rather inefficient, Greeks would still laze around the cafes, but there would be no crisis”.

From 1998 to 2008 there would have been tepid economic growth rather than the “ponzi growth” there was in the country and in the Irish Republic.

“Then in 2008 it would devaluation of the drachma, short recession about a year, and then Greece would go back to its own ways and you and I would not be having this conversation.

“This is a structural, systemic failure of the eurozone.”

What was the reaction of the man in the street to Brexit? Was it big news over there?

“For them the pain is so much, so great in Greece over what is happening there that people shrugged their shoulders and said: yeah, they, the EU establishment, had it coming.”

• Yanis Varoufakis was briefly one of the most famous politicians in the world but does not miss being finance minister:

“No. I never wanted to be finance minister,” he says. “I did it as a chore.”

As an academic, he “never understood why people want to be head of department, or dean or chancellor”.

“Who wants to be that? If you want to be a manager, why be in universities. But of course somebody had to do it and if you did it as a chore for a couple of years, as a public service to your community, that’s fine. But anybody who really wanted to be head of department should be fired because you shouldn’t be a professor if you wanted to be head of department.

“That is my view about politics. Anybody who wants to be minister is a very dangerous person. You should only do it as public service for a short period of time and then get out.”

But do ministers not need experience?

“No, you don’t want people with experience in politics. It is not engineering where you need experience. If you want to build a bridge you need an experienced engineer to do it.

“An experienced politician, what does that mean? Politics is a business in democracies of dialogue and debate and bringing together.”

So how does the ultimate outsider President Trump fit into that? Is he maybe not the worst thing from Varoufakis’ perspective? “No, he’s a terrible thing from my perspective, because he ticks many of the boxes that I would approve of to do the wrong thing.”

• In the second and third part of this interview, links below, Yanis Varoufakis talks about why Marxists are not necessarily pro large public sectors and gives his thoughts on the IRA

Second part: We leftists are not necessarily pro public sector – Marx was anti state

Final part: The IRA was terrorism but so was the campaign of the British army