Yanis Varoufakis was Greek finance minister for 162 days between January and July 2015. This makes him the political equivalent of a shooting star across the vast backdrop of international and European institutions, where such permanent fixtures as Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schaüble shine as constantly as the planet Jupiter.
Varoufakis was a globe-trotting Marxist economist who was hired, like an adjunct professor, by the Left-wing insurgent populists of Syriza, who “to universal surprise” came to power in Athens in January 2015 in coalition with an extreme nationalist party.
Combative, with fluent English, Varoufakis rapidly became a global celebrity, aided by his tanned good looks and leather coats, which contrasted with the portly smoothies and dry as dust Eurobond and T-Bill experts among his fellow finance ministers. He has become an honorary resident guest on the BBC’s Question Time.
Most of this blow-by-blow account of Varoufakis’s brief role in Greece’s much longer, and ongoing, debt crisis will only interest the nerdiest of economic nerds. The tone is unpleasantly self-justificatory and hyperbolic.
The essential agenda is to portray the author as the nation’s chief victim, for throughout plucky little Greece is subject to dark “Establishment” forces that are hellbent on imprisoning her in “debt bondage”, the modern EU equivalent of the Fleet or Marshalsea prisons. This is why the genial Greek is not only the darling of the Corbynite Left but a mascot for Britain’s Eurosceptic Right, with the likes of former Chancellor Norman Lamont among his early admirers.
The human consequences of mandatory austerity were very grave, with desperate people shooting themselves in Syntagma Square and grannies picking through bins for their next meal. Nearly half of young Greeks are still unemployed and many have emigrated. They are a world apart from Athens’ gauche caviar, what the Germans call Schicki-Micki, as personified by Varoufakis and his rich installation-artist wife Danae Stratou, allegedly the inspiration for Jarvis Cocker’s song Common People.
Varoufakis undoubtedly feels their pain but at the same time he has used his flirtation with politics to develop a career as a global media celebrity, something he shares with such fellow populists as Nigel Farage and Geert Wilders.
Indeed, one wonders whether these people want the responsibilities of office at all, when they can earn far more eschewing its burdens by holding forth from the wings on the BBC or Fox News.
The book barely touches on the endemic corruption that led to Greece’s plight, including the “magician” who cooked the books to enable Greece to join the euro in 2001. Huge sums were recklessly borrowed while few taxes were collected.
Instead, we are given the full Left-wing horror mythology of dark forces conspiring to punish the stroppy Greeks for their presumptive Greek Spring, including threats to Varoufakis’s son and intimations of a military coup. His use of terms such as “Bailoutistan” or “fiscal waterboarding” is grotesque.
It does not help Varoufakis’s case that these “dark forces” are never named, or that the most powerful man in the EU Commission (the German lawyer Martin Selmayer, whom even his boss Jean-Claude Juncker apparently calls “a monster”) merits only a single passing mention. If such an EU Establishment plot existed, Selmayer would surely be at the heart of it?
As for the coolness of Schaüble towards the bumptious Greek, this might just be connected to the fact that as a perpetual adolescent, Professor Varoufakis supported the kind of extremists (including the IRA and the PLO) who tend to put the Schaübles of this world in their graves or in wheelchairs.
At the heart of this book are exasperated clashes between such sticklers for rules as the peppery German, his Dutch Labour party colleague Jeroen Dijsselbloem, chair of the Eurofin group, and this tricksy Greek academic expert in “game theory” whose unpredictability became all too predictable. Varoufakis never understands that he was simply outclassed.
Worse, as an expat academic working in Australia or the US, Varoufakis had never been part of the various local cogs in the Syriza machine as it sought to displace Pasok, the main labour party. Even they grew weary of his petulant posturing, replacing Varoufakis with the less volatile Euclid Tsakalotos, a more realist Marxist who finally capitulated to Greece’s creditors.
Following his struggle against all, Varoufakis emerges lonely but pure, at least by his own vainglorious account.
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