OXFORD, England — A police van smuggled Steve Bannon past protesters in Oxford last month, a stop on a promotional tour for his new project to boost “populist nationalism” across Europe. Bannon’s speech at the Oxford Union, a grand debate hall that has hosted the likes of Albert Einstein and Mother Teresa, made headlines across the continent and led to claims that it was normalizing “white supremacy” and “legitimizing racism.” Much less noticed was an Oxford Union address given three days earlier by one of the few superstars of the European left — a wiry, motorcycle-driving economist named Yanis Varoufakis, a former Greek finance minister who rose to fame during Europe’s financial crisis for opposing dramatic budget cuts to pay off bad loans. Hundreds of students waited in a line that stretched down the block to enter the hall and spilled out of the pews inside.
For more than an hour, Varoufakis captivated the crowd by arguing that a grand crisis of capitalism was propelling the right to power and that it was time for the left to fight back.
His story began with the 2008 financial crisis that hit Europe. EU leaders “shifted the gigantic losses of the idiotic banks onto the shoulders of the taxpayers … This is what you do if you want to poison the politics and democracy of Europe.” The policies of the last decade were creating economic conditions like the ones that propelled Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini into power, he argued, and today they fueled the rise of “all those people that Steve Bannon is organizing and putting together in a Fascist International.” Varoufakis’s appearance got little more mention in the press than a column in the left-wing British magazine the New Statesman.
But Varoufakis is trying to change the script. The past decade has seen the rise of far-right and nationalist movements everywhere from the US to India to Brazil. In Europe, factions long shut out of the mainstream have thrived on Facebook and started winning elections by crusading against immigration and the power of Brussels, the EU’s de facto capital. But left-wing parties in much of Europe are on life support. While the US has exported Breitbart — which helped boost Brexit in the UK — and now Bannon himself, the kind of broad-based progressive revival that launched politicians like Beto O’Rourke and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US has yet to really take hold across Europe.
Varoufakis, who is now 58 years old, wants to be the man to change that.
His November stop in Oxford was part of a tour that also included visits to Berlin and Rome to launch a new transcontinental political party to save the EU by enacting a “Green New Deal” to spread prosperity and tackle global warming. Last month he also went to Vermont, where he launched an initiative called Progressive International at an event with Bernie Sanders.
“The financiers are internationalists. … The fascists, the nationalists, the racists, like Trump, Bannon … they are internationalists. They bind together. The only people who are failing are progressives,” Varoufakis said during a press conference in Rome in October. “Today … we’re saying enough.”
Varoufakis’s worldview is almost a mirror image of Bannon’s, ironically, albeit grounded more in economic theory and less in obscure fascist philosophy.
Bannon traces the uprising of a “global reaction against centralized government” to the 2008 economic crisis. The way he tells it, working people the world over saw “elites” in global centers of power joined together into a kind of dictatorship that sold them out to protect international financiers. Leaders like Donald Trump, who promised to smash the world order, were Bannon’s answer, and, after helping steer Trump to power, he opened an organization last summer in Brussels to offer help to parties that want to weaken the EU ahead of elections across the bloc next May.
Varoufakis agrees that these movements were spawned by leaders more worried about bankers than normal people. But for him, these politicians are “monsters” offering “lazy answers” that blame immigrants or Jews or other countries for their problems. “Populism is simple,” he said at Oxford.
But the populists are gaining ground — fast — at the same time that Britain’s messy split from the EU is a constant reminder that European unity is not inevitable. Far-right parties lead the government in Italy and are the largest opposition faction in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. The government of the EU’s sixth-largest country, Poland, was threatened with sanctions for undermining the rule of law, and Hungary is inching closer to dictatorship by the day.
As the right unites, the left is dissolving.
Many of the continent’s major center-left parties, perhaps because they offer no clear alternative to the reigning political order, are on the edge of extinction. The Social Democratic parties governed both France and Italy until elections in 2017 and 2018, but recent polls found them getting support from less than 5% of voters. Germany’s Social Democratic Party is now polling in fourth place after five years in coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party. It is now running neck and neck with Alternative for Germany, a far-right populist party that is aligned with Bannon.
There have been some insurgent left-wing movements that have sprung up in this environment, such as Spain’s Podemos or Britain’s reinvented Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. But the very questions that are forging a natural alliance among the far right — immigration, identity, and national sovereignty — split the left, in many cases driving a wedge right down the middle of existing parties. Some of the radical left’s most visible leaders also decry immigration to court the very same voters turning to the far right.
Varoufakis’s answer is not less power in Brussels, but more. International financial institutions span borders, and so must governments if there is any hope of bending them to the will of voters, he argues. He wants the EU to have far more control over Europe’s economy in exchange for more responsibility to take on bad debts when things go wrong. But he doesn’t want to leave control in the hands of today’s EU leadership, which is mostly unelected. He wants a new elected government in Brussels, transforming the EU into something more like a United States of Europe.
“A united Europe is something we must fight for,” he declared at Oxford.
So why can’t the European left agree? In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Varoufakis put much of the blame on ego and opportunism. That, he said, is why he is trying to build a new party from the ground up to compete in all of the EU.
Existing parties, Varoufakis said, “are far more interested in discussing who goes into bed with whom … and patching up differences on the basis of personality based alliances, not on the basis of a common program.”
But Varoufakis’s ambition sometimes seems to outpace doing the groundwork to build strong alliances.
He caught Sanders’ staff by surprise when he announced in an October press conference that, “on the 30th of November, Bernie Sanders and I are going to be launching the Progressive International in Vermont.” In fact, Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ closest aide and former presidential campaign manager, told BuzzFeed News he thought Sanders first learned of the initiative while sitting onstage during the announcement. The group, which doesn’t have much in place beyond its website, is being organized in partnership with an institute run by Sanders’ wife and son-in-law. The senator keeps at arm’s length to avoid running afoul of Senate ethics rules.
Varoufakis routinely speaks of wanting to build a broad movement, saying during the Vermont event, “We need a plan internationally, not just some white faces, not just males — decrepit ones like myself … but Africans, Asians, we need a lot more women.”
The leadership of the organizations he’s built in Europe comes from across the continent — and beyond — though it is primarily white. These groups also have strict rules requiring gender parity in top posts. But some of Varoufakis’s ideological allies think his celebrity has led him to fall victim to exactly the kind of egotism he decries.
One senior politician of a major European leftist party, who spoke off the record to discuss conflicts within her movement, told BuzzFeed News that Varoufakis is “a typical male character — he likes to be the first and leading one.”
“In politics, this happens,” she said. “I have some experience dealing with these kinds of male problems.”
Varoufakis did not respond to the accusation of chauvinism when asked about these comments by BuzzFeed News, but replied with a statement saying, “The last thing I want is to run at all, let alone lead any list. In a happier, better world, I would be in Aegina writing my [books] without the chores of electoral politics or the nastiness that one encounters even amongst comrades. If I am running it is because a historical accident bequeathed me some political capital that I am now putting at the disposal of our party list.”
Varoufakis’s vision for global progressive politics is rooted in his short tenure as Greece’s finance minister in a government led by the Coalition of the Radical Left, known as Syriza.
He was, for a moment, a true global celebrity. Varoufakis was one of the most closely watched politicians in the world. Greece’s economic crisis threatened the global financial system, and the government he was a part of was elected to say no to the prevailing response — austerity — that was pushed on struggling countries by financial powerhouses like Germany. But the media also breathlessly wrote about how he wore a leather coat to meet the UK finance chief, Doc Martens to the White House, and how he doesn’t wear a tie no matter how formal the setting.
Even when he was finance minister and locked in bitter fights with German leaders over Greece’s debt, Germany’s right-leaning Die Welt newspaper published a story headlined “What Makes Varoufakis a Sex Icon?”
“The one thing that we do have — that no other political party, in fact, has — is a pan-European charismatic leader,” Lorenzo Marsili, chair of European Spring’s coordinating collective, told BuzzFeed News. “He incarnates at once the fight against the system and the desire to construct a European democracy. …. Nobody else has that. He is not replaceable anywhere in the European Union.”
When Varoufakis came into office in 2015, he inherited a series of loan obligations to foreign governments and institutions that previous Greek governments had signed to stabilize the economy, which was devastated by a banking crisis that erupted in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown. He had been elected to renegotiate these bailouts, and he saw the EU’s leaders as thugs holding a gun to his country’s head.
Syriza’s victory caused a kind of global leftist euphoria. Finally, a radical government was elected to end the cycle of austerity and bank bailouts. But Varoufakis resigned in defeat after just five months in office. Despite popular support, the government had sidelined him and agreed to the bailout. Varoufakis then began a career as a kind of professional victim, a tragic hero to his fans and a self-aggrandizing egocentric to his critics. He titled his memoir of the financial crisis Adults in the Room: My Battle With the European and American Deep Establishment.
Varoufakis still has many supporters. He took his first step back to politics in 2016, creating an organization intended to link disparate left-wing parties called Democracy in Europe 2025, or DiEM25 for short. It won support from high-powered politicians and endorsement from famous iconoclasts, including WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange and Noam Chomsky. It now counts 78,000 members.
With the group, Varoufakis wanted to spark a groundswell of support to write a new constitution for the EU by 2025. But, Varoufakis told BuzzFeed News, he quickly despaired at the possibility of creating a broad alliance of existing parties.
“I was a lot more optimistic some time ago when we created DiEM with the naive idea that power of the ideas, the power of the program, is going to create this kind of alliance. That is fake — it’s not happening,” Varoufakis said. The left usually produces, time and again, what he calls “Frankenstein coalitions” that stitch together the fragments of dead parties, with leaders who share no common vision except to somehow get enough votes to win office.
So in the spring of 2018, DiEM25 decided to launch an “electoral wing.” In Greece, Varoufakis leads a party called it MéRA25, a play on DiEM25. (The names are all very “People’s Front of Judea,” a party official joked.) He is trying to get elected next May to the European Parliament. Some smaller existing parties signed on to his campaign in eight other countries, and they decided they would together form what they call “Europe’s first transnational party,” called European Spring. Now Varoufakis leads a ticket to get elected next May to the parliament of the European Union.
For some of his supporters, Varoufakis — who was educated in the UK and spent parts of his career teaching in Australia and Texas — is the only politician who truly understands the realities of their transnational lives.
Maria Christou, a 46-year-old supporter, told BuzzFeed News after a MèRA25 event with Varoufakis in Athens last month, “I’m exactly the kind of European Varoufakis is talking about.”
Christou was born in Cyprus and lived in the UK and France before moving to Athens around the time the global financial crisis began. Her son holds British citizenship, so they may lose the right to live in the same country after Brexit. She has paid into pension schemes in three countries, owns property in two, and doesn’t meet the requirements to cast a ballot anywhere.
“This is the result of the EU that we have now, which encourages the free movement of workers but never sought a cohesive life for its citizens,” she said. “They’re happy to take my money, but they don’t want to talk about my rights.”
The EU, for all its moves toward integration, has never functioned like one country, nor has it had a unified political party that runs across the whole bloc. The European Parliament is also less powerful than the EU’s unelected branches.
European Spring hopes to transform Europe it into a true beacon of progressive internationalism and revive the democratic spirit in the process. This vision seems especially audacious today, as the Brexit mess is proving that the EU is far from indivisible. Brussels now functions through alliances between political parties separately elected from 28 countries, and they’ll be coming from only 27 EU countries by the time of the European elections, barring yet another unforeseen Brexit disaster. The EU is split on fundamental questions ranging from immigration to marriage equality to policy toward Russia.
Europe’s volatility and the growing threat of the far right do create an opening for new players to galvanize the left. But Varoufakis is also competing in some cases with existing parties that hold 10% or more of their country’s vote. He’s not even the only left-wing economist vying for the role of savior of the left. France’s Thomas Piketty — author of the best-selling Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a book perhaps more widely praised than read — also recently rolled out a platform with some resemblance to Varoufakis’s.