Renowned economist Yanis Varoufakis gives an account of his brief stint as finance minister of Greece during the negotiations with the so-called troika consisting of the European Commission, the IMF, and the ECB in the spring of 2015 in order to restructure his country’s enormous debt. As part of the then newly elected and radical left Syriza government that was widely mistrusted by the political establishment of Europe, and as a novice politician, he faced an uphill battle against an overpowering adversary.
I have always been in favour of the EU because I strongly support the idea of a united Europe, but when I look at the reality of this current incarnation of it, it is impossible not to be underwhelmed at best or utterly disgusted and disillusioned at worst. The way Greece was treated was a disaster to the Greek people and a disgrace to the rest of Europe because of the contempt shown for democracy and the suffering inflicted on the weakest. Varoufakis describes in detail the fruitless negotiations with high-ranking politicians and officials of the various institutions who were not interested in any of the solutions he presented but instead were only focused on reasserting their authority and making an example of Greece. When someone from the IMF tells him to take the money he owes them from the already destitute pensioners instead of defaulting on the IMF the absence of empathy and humanity is chilling.
The whole book reads like a thriller filled with a breathtaking amount of backstabbing, duplicity, lies, and threats, and its appeal is further enhanced by a parade of well-known figures from Angela Merkel to Mario Draghi and Christine Lagarde, with cameos by the likes of Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders. Reading it would be great fun if it were a work of fiction, but sadly, it is not. Varoufakis is a good writer even if his style is a little unorthodox; some parts are indeed written like a thriller, while others are rather technical in their description of economic terms and procedures although he does explain them in an accessible way.
Obviously, this is a personal account from Varoufakis’s perspective, but he looks at events critically and with an unexpectedly high level of self-reflection even if he could be accused of sometimes veering into at least some self-aggrandizing. In general, he does not shrink back from acknowledging mistakes he made, and situations that he gravely misjudged. This, and the fact that he seems rather idealistic in his approach to politics, make him very likeable, but it clearly also led to his downfall because apparently idealism, integrity, or even expertise have no place in politics. He demonstrates believably that in the EU, the power lies with a select few, while all others better leave their spine at home if they want a spot in the sun.
Varoufakis’s analysis of the rot at the heart of the EU is razor-sharp, and I think fundamentally correct. I also agree that the dissolution of the EU would be the wrong conclusion to draw from these events; the right one is that reforms are imperative in order to reinforce democracy and to restore the people’s confidence in it. At one point, he insists that it was not a Greek tragedy that he found himself in, and that is probably true. It was and is a European tragedy, and whether the outcome is catharsis remains to be seen.