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19th Jul 2019

Feature

The second coming of Varoufakis

  • Varoufakis is back in the limelight (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former minister of finance, has re-emerged into the limelight. On Tuesday evening (9 February) he took the stage of Volksbuehne, a workers' theatre overlooking east Berlin’s Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz.

The show: his new endeavour, the Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25). Tickets sold out weeks ago. An hour to the opening, a long line of late-comers gathered by the box office, trying their luck. Journalists who had received accreditation were bumped to host more participants.

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  • Sierakowski: 'Varoufakis must know that people won’t gather around a discussion of economics' (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

In a 20-minute long opening speech, Varoufakis painted out his movement’s vision for how to save the EU.

“EU disintegration is happening. Divisions, walls are springing up along the borders of our nations, in people’s minds and hearts… If we do nothing, the EU’s deconstruction will lead to a version of the 1930s. This is my appeal to prevent this,” he told the audience.

The former Eurogroup troublemaker blamed “a highly political, top-down, opaque [EU] decision-making process that is presented as apolitical, technical, procedural and neutral” for draining Europe both democratically and economically.

“The price of this deceit was not merely the end of democracy but also a vicious circle between authoritarianism and economic crisis,” Varoufakis told the audience.

“The more they asphyxiated democracy, the less legitimate their political authority became, the stronger the recession - the greater the need for authoritarianism.”

“Allow me to define fanaticism. It consists of doubling the efforts when the project has failed,” he said.

Several dozen sympathisers joined DiEM25's leader on stage to convey their hopes and support for the movement.

'Minority of one'

Among them were German MP Katja Kipping from the leftist Die Linke party; UK Green MP Caroline Lucas; Miguel Urban Crespo, an MEP from Spain's Podemos party; Irish MEP Nessa Childers; and former Portuguese MEP Rui Tavares.

"When parliaments become theaters, we have to turn theaters into parliaments," said Miguel Urban Crespo.

A representative of the anti-austerity Blocupy movement used her time on stage to give Varoufakis a rainbow-coloured balaclava.

Trade unions were also there, as well as musician Brian Eno and Croatia's Srecko Horvat, who describes himself as a philosopher of revolution, love and masturdating (going out alone to restaurants, cinemas or other venues) .

Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, French former minister of environment Cecile Duflot, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and the philosopher Slavoj Zizek sent video and web-stream messages. The meeting lasted well over four hours.

The choice to launch DiEM in Berlin was a symbolic one.

“Nothing can change without Germany’s participation,” Varoufakis politely told German journalists at a press conference earlier. He has been more blunt in the past, accusing Germany of pulling the strings in Europe, imposing fiscal austerity and crushing left-wing alternatives.

“Germany is looking for economic dominance in Europe. [German finance minister] Schaeuble wants to take control over the French state budget,” Varoufakis told the Swedish daily ETC in an interview published on Tuesday.

Seven months in the Eurogroup taught him that it is not possible to conduct radical left-wing politics in a single country.

”I was in a minority of one,” he said.

That is why DiEM aims to “unite people of different cultures, languages, accents, political parties, ideologies, skin colours, gender identities, faiths and conceptions of the good society” and push together, in all ways possible, for a democratisation of the EU.

Re-politicise politics

There are several proposals for how to do this.

”Already tomorrow we will submit a proposal to the presidents of the European Council, Ecofin [the council of EU finance ministers] and the ECB [the European Central Bank] to stream their meetings and publish their minutes as well as publish trade negotiations documents,” Varoufakis said.

He also called for a recalibration of EU policies to address the five crises of debt, banking, inadequate investment, migration and rising poverty.

In a longer perspective, he wants to convene a constitutional assembly where Europeans will deliberate on how to create by 2025 a “fully-fledged European democracy, featuring a sovereign parliament that respects national self-determination and sharing power with national parliaments, regional assemblies and municipal councils”.

Varoufakis hopes to gather a large coalition behind his proposals, including Tories with the same democratic interests.

“Some of my greatest political friends can be described as neoliberals,” he said. ”If we can be friends, then DiEM can surely embrace all those who agree on the necessity to re-politicise politics so as to address the economic crisis.”

Mixed reception

But some were reluctant to back the movement.

“I like the idea,” Sławomir Sierakowski, a Polish intellectual, told EUobserver.

“Especially the part about a social movement rather than a political party – the latter is just too inefficient. More and more often, legislation is negotiated between a ministry and pushers, e.g. coalitions of NGOs. Parties are just not rooted in the society any more. When economics is globalised and politics is not, a social movement aimed at European integration is the only chance for rebalancing global economy,” he said.

But he added that Varoufakis' proposal was “too economy-focused”.

“My experience tells me that a political solution can be good for 80 percent of the people, and they will still not vote for it,” he said.

Sierakowski is the founder of Krytyka Polityczna, a publishing house and journal which also runs cultural centres and activist clubs in Poland, Kiev and Berlin.

“Class struggle is simply less important than cultural wars. What most people care about today is fighting with refugees, gays, pro-choice feminists,” he said.

“Varoufakis must know that people won’t gather around a discussion of economics.”

Sierakowski was also annoyed by the lack of references to Ukraine in DiEM’s manifesto.

"There’s just a short sentence about ’tensions in the East’. Russia invaded Ukraine. If Greece wants Europe to help it with the refugees, it must understand that Poland, and Ukraine, want help with dealing with Russia," he said.

His reasoning was partially echoed by Ulrike Guerot, a German political thinker and founder of European Democracy Lab.

“It’s a very interesting initiative, and we need a democratic and social Europe," she told EUobserver.

"But I tend to act rebelliously when democracy comes up as a big slogan, because it’s hollow, it can go either way. You can easily argue that the best people’s democracy that Germany ever had was the Nazis. They had the majority of the street. There was never a progressive revolution, and it would not happen today either. Dresden, Pegida, Marine Le Pen have the streets."

Nations are the real problem

Guerot would rather promote the idea of a European republic, on the topic of which she has authored a book that will be published later this year.

“If we want a political union in Europe - and I think that is the goal that unites us - then it should take the form of a republic," she said.

"Res publica is the oldest and most respectable term to defend democracy. It’s government through the law and protection against arbitrary law that would have spared Socrates from the plebs.

“These are elements which the EU cannot claim for itself today, which makes the EU legal but not democratic. In order to become so, it would need to have equal law for all citizens, install right of initiative for the parliament, a commission that is executive while it should be up to a court to guard the treaty. Transparency for Ecofin council is fine, but it’s not how to get democracy.”

Guerot says it is wrong to put the whole blame on Brussels for the EU’s democratic deficit.

“It’s not the poor civil servants sitting there and basically doing their job who are the real problem of the EU not functioning, but the nation states," she said.

"We have a German, Polish, British problem in Europe, who say they want to be sovereign rather than abide by common EU rules. Varoufakis promises that both EU and the nation states will increase their sovereignty through his proposals, but that’s impossible.”

Guerot says the concept of a sovereign assembly is the best point of the manifesto, but how it would come around is very vague.

Alienating women

She doesn't think DiEM will manage to attract many supporters on the right because he is “tagged as radical left”.

At the same time DiEM seems to have its fair share of work to do before its movement becomes representative of the broader left.

Many of the participants were concerned about the refugees - but all of the day's participants were stark white. Ulrike Guerot compared DiEM25's ​​gender representation to Pegida’s. The calls to free Assange, who locked himself up in Ecuador's London embassy to avoid questioning over sex assault allegations in Sweden, ​​risk alienating women further.

The geographical representation focused on Spain and some from Germany, as well as individual participants from other countries. Surprisingly, no Greeks were invited to take the floor, making it difficult to assess the movement's support in Varoufakis homeland.

DiEM is not the only ongoing attempt to rouse the EU's left. On 19-21 February, Podemos will organise a workshop in Madrid to prepare a "plan B for Europe", described as a holistic approach to EU's crisis.

Schaeuble and Varoufakis: worlds apart

Washington got a snapshot of eurozone politics when the two protagonists in the Greek impasse voiced opposing world views at a think tank event on Thursday.

Varoufakis back in push for ECB transparency

The former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and German left-wing MEP Fabio De Masi want to know whether the European Central Bank overstepped its powers when putting capital controls on Greek banks in 2015.

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