Freelance journalist and commentator Amanda Ferguson talks to economist and former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis ahead of a recent Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DIEM25) event in Belfast.
Q: You have strong links with the island of Ireland. What do you like about the place, the people, and Belfast?
A: Well, I come from a place that has known suffering, civil war, persecution, ancient hatreds and yet it managed to create beautiful literature, music, cultural civilisation so in a sense I feel at home here.
Q When you first heard of the expected £500m cost to the taxpayer of the RHI ‘cash for ash’ scheme you said it could be “conspiracy or cock up” but increasingly you think it was a cock up. How does this financial scandal make Northern Ireland look to a wider audience, to an international audience?
A: The good news is that it hasn’t really travelled that far away from this isle which is good. I come from a country which has lots of scandals and I never felt good when I want to Malaysia or Australia and people knew about them. I think you should just find the political means by which to hold those who were responsible to account and move on and make sure you don’t do it again.
Q: You are a respected expert in your field and judged in that context but you also experience what many women do with regard to judgement of physical appearance. What is your reaction to this? Are you a feminist? Who are your female role models?
A: I am utterly a feminist in my disposition. I had a feminist grandmother in the 1920s, who was part of the suffragette movement in Egypt, Cairo, of all places, so there is a long tradition in my family. Look, the feminisation of male politicians who refuse to be macho is part and parcel of an attempt to undermine their credibility. This is what women have always felt and experienced so in that sense I feel very proud to have been treated in that demeaning way because it means that I must have done something right.
Q The main Irish republican and nationalist parties in NI campaigned to remain in the European Union. There has been some suggestion the leave result is a better result for Irish republicans who want reunification. Do you think it brings them closer to that ultimate goal presented these days as a new Ireland? Does the instability the leave result brings and the possible impact on the union mean it’s win-win for republicans?
A: As somebody who has been on the left for too long, I can tell you that I never really agreed with the Leninist dictum that things have to get worse before they get better so I reject that argument.
Q The left in Northern Ireland seems to be divided into a number of different groupings and it has been suggested they tend to spend time attacking each other rather than attacking the right? Why do you think that is? And what advice would you offer the left in NI?
A: To watch Life of Brian again because the opening scene is precisely the one you described – The Judean People’s Front versus the Liberation Front of Judea. We on the left are very good, we are a bit like the Christians, dividing and multiplying in many sects. It is about time to overcome this. This is what DIEM25 is, I am here, this is what our movement is all about. It is about not just leftists but also with progressive conservatives, with liberals, with sensible people who want to overcome this infinite capacity of human nature to create a mess out of something that could be handled quite rationally and humanely.
Q Do you believe President Donald Trump is a threat to the future safety of the world?
Q You said in Brexit terms along the essentially invisible Irish border it “is not going to be business as usual”. Do you think it’s impossible for British PM Theresa May to achieve what she wants in terms of the single market/immigration and keep Ireland border check free?
A: Usually life is complicated enough to say one can never be sure but this is a question I can answer without any shadow of a doubt. She is making false promises that she will never be able to keep. There is no way she can achieve that.
Q Negotiating with Brussels was a negative experience for Greece. There is disagreement between the political parties over who should talk for Northern Ireland. Who do you think would best represent Northern Ireland’s interests?
A: I think the people of Northern Ireland.
Q You have been asked a lot about the impact of Brexit for NI and you say rather than indulge in predictions steps should be taken to prevent harm. What steps would you recommend?
A: Theresa May should file for an off the shelf agreement. You see, she is going to be bamboozled by what I call the EU runaround. She will talk to Juncker, Juncker will refer to Merkel. She will talk to Merkel, Merkel will refer her to Schauble. Schauble will refer her back so the only way of avoiding that is by avoiding having negotiations. The only way to avoid having negotiations is by taking an off the shelf agreement, a Norway style, EEA agreement, and saying I want that. They won’t be able to refuse her. And to do this using a good Brexit argument, the only strong, philosophically strong argument in favour of Brexit, is restoring national sovereignty to the House of Commons. Well, do it – restore national sovereignty to the House of Commons but which House of Commons should make the decision? Not this one. This one was not elected with a mandate to discuss Brexit because when they were elected they did not know Brexit was going ahead. The next one. To give the next parliament an opportunity to have this discussion. A minimalist Brexit now with an EEA agreement and then that is what will create the circumstances for Northern Ireland and Ireland to maintain the status quo for long enough to be able to create the process that would lead to a good solution for all the people in Ireland.
Q Economic-jobs figures published in the Republic of Ireland in recent weeks have been good. Does that prove the cautious way it dealt with the economic crash was better than what could be viewed as your radical, arguably failed, approach?
A: Not in the slightest. There was nothing radical in my approach. All I said was I am not going to take more money from European taxpayers when I know I can’t repay it. I think that is the duty of every finance minister, actually any citizen. If you can’t pay for your credit card don’t get another one to pay the first one. I don’t see what is radical about that. You can be extremely right wing and agree with that. It is not a left-wing position. In the case of Ireland it is quite different than the case of Greece but having said that I think that the people of Ireland have every right, and actually a duty to their history, to be very cross with Europe. The way Ireland was treated in 2009, the promiserial note will go down in history as a major assault on a nation by its central bank. Even if you think you have recovered don’t lose the rage because these things should never happen in a union of democratic states. We Greeks took a major hit because we were the first domino to fall and as a result of that Ireland was spared a much, much greater hit. People ask me questions concerning the relative performance of Greece and Ireland after the disaster and I say well, compare and contrast the degrees of austerity that we suffered with what Ireland suffered. We suffered more than twice the austerity of what Ireland suffered. Now we were first, the IMF in particular learned a lesson. They grossly underestimated the ill effects of the austerity they imposed upon us and as a result when it came to Dublin they were much, much more lenient. For instance, less than half the austerity and they did not reduce minimum wages. That is what spared Ireland. But still so many Irish families have lost people to immigration and not gained them again.It was an unnecessary social crisis that we must not forget and must not forgive those who ran us into the ground.
Q EU commissioner Frans Timmermans has said ROI needs to use “creativity” to ensure Brexit is as painless as possible, but must not engage in bilateral talks with London. What are your thoughts?
A: Whether we like it or not Ireland is part of the bloc but has to negotiate collectively with Britain. My great fear is that there will be no negotiations. That it will be a semblance of negotiations. I know that from personal experience. You can’t negotiate with Brussels. You negotiate for the right to negotiate and then you don’t negotiate about anything really. So, I think that Ireland is in a very difficult spot and it is up to Theresa May to overcome this Brexit at all costs fixation.
My view is that a sensible small c conservative solution would be for Britain to, immediately after triggering Article 50, go for a EEA Norway style agreement of six or seven years to create a space of time so that there can be sensible discussion, outside the constraints of the electoral cycle in the next coming two years, and then Ireland would have the opportunity to do the right thing by the people of Ireland both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland.
• DIEM25 describes itself as a pan-European, cross-border movement of democrats that have come together despite diverse political traditions – Green, radical left, liberal – in order to repair the EU before it disintegrates.