In a warm office in Berlin’s trendy Kreuzberg district, Charlemagne is trying to persuade Yanis Varoufakis that he is a politician. “It’s a necessity. I really dislike running and asking people for votes,” protests the Greek economist when asked about European Spring, his new transnational political party. Does he think of himself as a politician? “No. The moment I do, shoot me.” Apparently inadvertently, Mr Varoufakis won his seat in the Greek parliament in 2015, became finance minister, took on the European economic establishment and failed. After six months, he discarded the chains of office in pique. “If you want to be a manager, you can work for Goldman Sachs,” he sighs.
Not a politician? That evening, in an old warehouse in Berlin’s east, Mr Varoufakis takes to the stage before a young, bookish, international audience at the launch of European Spring’s manifesto for May’s elections to the European Parliament. Perched on the edge of his seat, he seems every bit the vote-wrangler. His right hand clasps the microphone, the left one depicts trillions of euros: slicing and restructuring debts, swishing from side to side to illustrate giant German surpluses, fingers flickering to imitate the vicissitudes of lily-livered social democrats.
It is easy to mock Mr Varoufakis. As Greek finance minister, he hectored Eurocrats for their desiccated economic orthodoxies—sometimes reasonably (he correctly pointed out that Greece will never repay all of its debts), sometimes outlandishly (covertly planning a parallel Greek payments system). He was ridiculed for a photo-shoot in Paris Match, a French celebrity magazine, which showed him dining stylishly on his roof-terrace beneath the Acropolis. To many critics, his career is one unending book tour: tomes excoriating the international economic establishment fly off the shelves every time he bashes elites in the media.
Mr Varoufakis’s European ambitions do not exactly disprove the stereotype. He is running in the impending Greek parliamentary election and in the European Parliament elections—for Germany. This is provocative in a country where Mr Varoufakis has long been demonised. “If we wanted to reform the Roman empire we would start in Rome, not in southern Egypt,” he argues. At the rally in Berlin he indulges in Utopianism, imagining the first press conference on the Monday morning of a European Spring-led Europe. The proposals to be announced on that glorious day: €2.5trn in green investments from the European Investment Bank (eib) over five years, a guarantee from the European Central Bank that it will prop up the prices of eib bonds in secondary markets and the mutualisation of (good) European debt to lower interest rates.
All of this sends orthodox eyeballs skywards. Yet one does not have to agree with everything the Greek politician says to find some aspects of his efforts welcome. European Spring, the electoral wing of a trans-European political movement called (rather irritatingly) diem25, wants to help Europeanise the European elections. The parliament in Strasbourg is a supra-national body passing supra-national European legislation, but elections to it are fought on national lines by national parties. Europe’s media, trade unions and civic organisations are mostly national. Few political figures are known across borders. In the words of Elly Schlein, a young Italian European Spring candidate: “The eu is a round table where politicians have their backs to each other, facing domestic political concerns instead.” In other words, most of the eu’s debates do not take place at the level where European power is exercised. European Spring thinks that needs to be corrected.
Moreover, it may breathe some life into the old, tribal European politics. Traditional party groups in the European Parliament are moribund. Only last week it was alleged that Elmar Brok, a walrus-like Christian Democrat from Germany, had been charging constituents to visit the parliament and made €18,000 a year from the wheeze. He denies the accusations. You do not have to agree with the European Spring’s proposals—which include a universal citizen’s income, totally open borders and relaxed fiscal policies—to welcome the possible arrival of new, fresh legislators like Ms Schlein in Strasbourg. “If you try to take over an existing political party, you will be taken over by it,” warns Mr Varoufakis. “They are bureaucratic machines wedded to the nation-state with an institutional aversion to ideas.”
European Spring is at best a fringe outfit. Even Mr Varoufakis reckons it is unlikely to win more than a handful of seats, and he is not known for understatement. So its effects on the debate in Strasbourg and Brussels are likely to be limited. But at a time when pro-Europeans seem ever more confined to the technocratic centre of politics, it is welcome to find a transnational party making the case for openness from a different perspective. Europe will only be open in the future if openness has defenders on the right, centre and left of politics. Many on the left—Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, Sarah Wagenknecht in Germany—are turning towards leftist tribalism, Euroscepticism and anti-immigration politics in an attempt to win over disaffected voters. But European Spring embraces none of those things. Mr Varoufakis stresses that the group has liberal strains, and that he has long dealt with figures outside his own ideological camp (he is in close contact with Norman Lamont, a British Conservative former finance minister). European Spring activists talk about bringing together French and Polish workers to defuse national conflicts between the two, encouraging young European volunteers to help refugees in hostels near the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais and taking on the Italian government in cities like Naples.
Times are tough for Europe’s liberals. Their tunes no longer sound so good in a post-crisis age, and they are struggling to find new ones. They will undoubtedly disagree with much that Mr Varoufakis and his comrades say. But they are at least fellow fighters in an increasingly difficult struggle against the drift to a Europe of closed societies and economies.
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Varoufakis Sans Frontières”
Print edition | Europe
Jan 31st 2019
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