On Sunday morning, the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis picked up a microphone in Berlin, the German capital where, three years ago, high-stakes negotiations with E.U. leaders culminated in his resignation. Varoufakis, 57, knows many Germans still blame him and his country for the European debt crisis. But on stage in Berlin, next to a banner reading “European Spring,” he announced he would again be running for elected office. This time, in Germany.
His target is a German seat in the May 2019 European Parliament elections, which are set to take place against a rising tide of far-right populism. (E.U. citizens are eligible to stand for bloc-wide elections abroad.) In 2014, the last time European lawmakers were elected, anti-E.U. parties did well. Five years later, following the European migrant crisis and the election of far-right lawmakers into national parliaments across Europe, they are projected to do even better. “We live in a disintegrating Europe,” Varoufakis told the room. “A depressed Greece, an Italy taken over by racist populists, and a divided German society.”
Looking on were members of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25). Varoufakis founded that group in 2016, after he resigned from his post as Greek finance minister. Two years and 100,000 members later, it is ready to contest its first elections. The bright-red cover of its manifesto carries a simple message: “The E.U. will be democratized. Or it will disintegrate!”
It’s an apocalyptic message paired with an optimistic goal. Not only is this insurgent movement planning to battle the likes of Matteo Salvini in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France, but also the center-right figures in power in the E.U., like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. And Germany, at the heart of Europe, is where DiEM25 chose to fire the first salvo of that battle.
Varoufakis’s view of that “authoritarian establishment” was undoubtedly shaped by his six months as Greek finance minister for the country’s left-wing Syriza government, which clashed with the E.U. over plans to saddle Greece with deep cuts to public spending in order to pay off government debt.
In those negotiations, Varoufakis argued that level of austerity would crash the Greek economy and make the repayment of its debt near-impossible. The Greek public agreed with him, rejecting the austerity-focused bailout conditions proposed by the E.U. and IMF at a referendum in mid-2015. Greece subsequently accepted the conditions anyway, which Varoufakis characterized as a “betrayal” after resigning his position.
He charts a direct line between his experience then and his new movement’s diagnosis of Europe’s ills. “I was very clear behind closed doors when I was addressing the powers that be in Europe,” Varoufakis tells TIME. “This was my warning: You may not like us, but we are democrats. If you crash us because you don’t like us, the next force that you will have to reckon with are the racists, the xenophobes that are rising up in Greece, Italy, everywhere. And those people are intent on breaking Europe.”
That prediction has come true, he says now. European institutions, he argues, succeeded in temporarily propping up a failing financial system by bailing out creditors, while crippling populations across Europe with austerity. His radical message is that the economic policies of the European establishment are not the alternative to the far right. Instead, he says, they are to blame for its rise. Candidates will espouse this message while contesting seats in eight countries across Europe in the upcoming elections. (Parties belonging to the European Spring movement are currently in Germany, Greece, Italy, France, Poland, Denmark, Portugal and Spain.)
“They appear as foes, but they are accomplices,” Varoufakis says of the establishment. “Salvini needs Merkel and Juncker. Because their policies and their incompetence are creating the discontent that is feeding Salvini.”
Asked about Hillary Clinton, who said on Thursday that Europe must close its borders to migrants in order to stem the tide of populism, Varoufakis’s disgust is audible. “The reason why populism and the alt-right are rising is not because of the border policy,” he says. “It is because we combine misanthropy towards foreigners with economic policies that generate massive depravity within our own populations. And then the clueless liberal establishment, like Clinton, try to explain the inexplicable, because they do not want to accept that their policies were the ones that created the discontent that populists are exploiting.”
It’s a controversial message, but one he hopes will resonate: Germany is one of the richest countries in Europe, but austerity measures there are beginning to bite. “Greece was used as a dystopian laboratory in which policies were devised that were then transplanted to Germany—and the German people are the victims of this,” he says.
“The fact that I’m going to be standing in Germany is a statement,” he continues. “We want to signal the toxic fallacy of the narrative that Europe is at the mercy of a north-south clash between countries like Germany and Greece.”
Instead, he says, a message of unity is necessary—one that brings Europeans together around shared ideals of democracy and transparency. “We want a united Europe, we want a progressive Europe,” he says. He opposed Britain’s exit from the E.U., he adds, precisely because he thinks it’s a better idea to attempt to reform an institution from within than from the outside.
That message, he hopes, can be a political force strong enough to compete with the populist messages coming from the far-right. “We consider populism to be a scourge and to be toxic,” he says. “Populists, in my understanding of the term going back to the 1930s, are demagogues who mine the deposits of anger in the souls of victims of capitalism. They invest in that anger, they turbocharge that anger, they turn it against the Other, whether the Other is the Jew or the Syrian or the Mexican.”
An aversion to populism, and talking up the politics of unity, are one side of DiEM25’s pitch. The other is a meticulously-crafted policy agenda, bolstered by Varoufakis’s reputation as a leading economist with credible alternative strategies for how to direct the E.U.’s gargantuan financial arms. Their workings, Varoufakis argues, have de facto become exempt from democratic oversight because of their complexity. But he hopes DiEM25’s policy agenda—which includes bolstering green investment, ending austerity and strengthening financial regulations—might start to change that. He calls it the “New Deal for Europe.”
The success of pairing lofty symbolism with technical detail will only become clear on the campaign trail. But in one significant way, that’s not what matters. Varoufakis has his eye on the Greek elections, also scheduled to be held in 2019. When a date is set, he tells TIME, he will step aside from the European parliament to run for a second stint in the legislature of his home country.
Varoufakis acknowledges his movement is unlikely to wield power immediately. But as self-professed democrats, it is DiEM25’s lot to contest elections by the book. Europe may be disintegrating. But 2025 is still a ways off.
By BILLY PERRIGO, 6:51 AM EST