Varoufakis interview with La Stampa: Angela Merkel, Italy’s PD and Greece’s refugee policy

Yanis Varoufakis speaks to La Stampa about the Greek government’s shameful policy on refugees and MeRA25’s electoral setback, as well as the future of the Eurozone, his friend Elly Schlein’s leadership of Italy’s main opposition party, and Angela Merkel

La Stampa: Almost all parties, on the campaign trail during the recent Greek election, were in favour of the government’s policy of border controls. A few days before Greece went to vote, a chilling video, published by the New York Times, went around the world: the Greek Coast Guard can be seen abandoning a group of migrants in the middle of the sea. Are the police turning away migrants, from Evros to the islands? You, however, were the only leader to have asked a parliamentary question to the Mitsotakis government, accusing him of hiding these inhumane practices.

Varoufakis: Mr Mitsotakis’ government is actively and consciously violating international law by pushing vessels with vulnerable refugees back into the stormy Aegean Sea. It is a deliberate policy to make our men and women of the Greek Coastguard commit acts which, according to the Law of the Sea and basic human decency, can be described not only as shameful but also illegal. We now have solid evidence that, not only are they pushing flimsy boats back in mid-sea but, even worse, they force refugees that have already landed in Greece back into boats which they then tow back out to sea where they are abandoned.

MeRA25, the party that I lead, exposed these crimes in Parliament and, besides, put forward the real reason behind Mitsotakis’ inhumanity: He has chosen to dominate Greek politics through a combination of, on the one hand, cozing up to Big Business and the Greek oligarchs while, on the other hand, pacifying the masses of the impoverished Greeks with large doses of ultranationalism and thinly-covered, but overwhelming, racism.

I was in Athens for the elections. I have also been on Evros and interviewed many people. It seems that Greeks are becoming less interested in the migrant issue because there are other problems (economy, wages, inflation) and there have been too many arrivals in recent years. Is your country forgetting human rights?

Yes. A population that has been brutalised by thirteen years of crisis, whose median per capita real incomes are 40% lower than in 2007, and whose democracy was crushed in 2015 (when their brave referendum vote was ignored) are now too numb to care about abstract rights. And it is not just the rights of refugees, of ‘others’, that they have become numb towards – it is their own rights too, as witnessed by the apathy toward the exposure of a Prime Minister who has been caught red-handed eavesdropping on political opponents, even on members of his cabinet!

Concerning the wall with Turkey. In your opinion, should Greece’s borders close?

Of course not. It is one thing to say that a country has the right to control its borders and quite another to say that it will close them down, annulling the internationally recognised right of refugees to apply for asylum.

In your opinion, how should the migrant issue be addressed at the European level? Reception, quotas, walls?

Walls are a disgrace to humanity. When Donald Trump was screaming “Build the Wall!”, Europeans condemned him – rightly. For us to hide behind our own walls is the apotheosis of hypocrisy. MeRA25’s view, and the view of our paneuropean movement DiEM25, is simple: Europe is an aging continent. We have a real need for many migrants every year. We also have a duty to accept refugees from the wars and the climate catastrophe we are partly to blame for. So, first, we must replace the Dublin framework with one where member-states share migrants and refugees, rather than ‘imprisoning’ them in border countries like Greece and Italy. Secondly, we must open centres in Asia and Africa where people can apply for refugee or migrant status without having to cross deserts and navigate rough seas.

Let’s go over last Sunday’s elections. Although the turnout was low (on an absolute level, 58.7 percent), Premier Mitsotakis overwhelmed. The left came out slaughtered, as a whole. How do you explain this collapse?

Hard to know where to start. The left, internationally, has never recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and, later, from its inability to take advantage of the collapse of financialised capitalism in 2008. In the EU, SYRIZA’s capitulation in July 2015, against the verdict of 62% of voters who ordered us not to capitulate in that magnificent referendum, destroyed the very real opportunity Europe’s Left had to put forward a new agenda for the EU – one that moved away from the principle of ‘socialism for the bankers & the oligarchs with harsh austerity for the rest’. Here in Greece, that capitulation led to the rise of the Mitsotakis government who, subsequently, went into an Orban-like, or Erdogan-like, pact with the oligarchic media to create a mass propaganda machine which – in combination with popular anger over SYRIZA’s 2015-era capitulation – handed an unprecedented hegemony to Mitsotakis. Lastly, the pandemic caused the European Central Bank to loosen up the purse strings (along with the Recovery Fund), the result being that Mitsotakis used up another €50 billion of debt to buy influence. Of course, this irresponsible debt binge will come back to haunt the very voters who re-elected Mitsotakis, along with everyone else. Before long, La Stampa will be reporting on the ‘new’ Greek economic crisis – but that does not bother Mr Mitsotakis who only cares about his short-term dominance.

Writer Petros Markaris, in an interview with La Stampa, said that the left no longer has a credible and effective recipe, and that is why it loses.

This is probably right. Except that Mr Markaris, blinded by his hatred of the left, was saying the same even when we, leftists, had a credible and effective set of policies – which he, and his ilk, opposed tooth and nail.

Markaris also said that you are not credible because you are a rich man who wants to defend the poor.

If his logic is right, it would mean that only the sick can care for the sick, only the mentally disturbed can care for the mentally disturbed, only blacks can oppose racism and only women can fight against patriarchy. I wonder how credible Mr Markaris can be given such absurd views. [By the way, while perfectly comfortable when compared to the masses out there, I am not rich – but that’s another story.]

The poor, Markaris adds, can be defended better by the rich people of the center-right, now in government. What do you answer?

Follow the money, is my answer. The median worker is poorer today than when the Mitsotakis government took over. As we speak, in a country of ten million souls two million homes and businesses are about to be confiscated by funds belonging to the ruling class (that adores Mr Mitsotakis’s government) which they have paid no more than 5% of the face value of those people’s loans. Additionally, up to a million young people have left the country while the oligarchs behind the Mitsotakis government collect greater profit rates than almost anywhere else in the world. So much for the protection this government of the oligarchs is offering the poor!

For you, it is a shock to be left out of Parliament. How will you organize yourselves now? Are you thinking, by any chance, of leaving politics?

You are obviously misinformed. While MeRA25 fell a mere 23,000 votes short of winning nine seats in Parliament on May 21, a new election is scheduled for June 25 which we are contesting with all our might and enthusiasm. As for leaving politics, it is impossible. I am the very definition of how Aristotle described a human being: a ‘political animal’!

What do you think about the Syriza-Pasok ‘civil war’?

Exactly what you think of the ‘civil war’ between Coca and Pepsi Cola: Not interesting!

Wouldn’t a united centre-left have favoured the whole left?

Not since the late 1970s. From 1980 onwards, and especially after the 1990s, the centre left ceased to be even social democratic. They were co-opted by the financial sector and lost their capacity (often their interest) to defend the workers and the poor. Thus, the centre left and the centre right formed an effective cartel working in the interests of the very few, the two blocks being the two different political faces of Big Business. It is in this sense that a united centre left would be terrible for the people – and, thus, for the left.

Wasn’t “Demetra” (MeRA25’ proposed public, free digital payments system) a bit too radical a proposition? Did ‘Demetra’ scare many voters?

What scared voters was the very well-planned media campaign to demonise MeRA25 and myself personally, for the simple reason that we exposed the financial crimes against the population committed by the oligarchs who ‘happened’ to own every single TV and radio station. This is how a moderate, technically superb proposal for a publicly owned free digital payments system – that we named ‘Demetra’, was presented as the Satan. When the mere possibility of a dialogue is drowned in the shrieks of the oligarchs’ mouthpieces, democracy dies and fear rules.

Many accuse you of still wanting to exit the euro while the Greek economy is growing.

The Greek economy is not growing. What is growing is our already gigantic debt and, with it, the debt-fuelled earnings of the top 20% – just as they were before 2008 with the result we all know: the insolvency of our nation. As for the euro, no, I do not want us to exit the euro. At the same time, there are things that need to happen in Greece to make our society viable – to stop the migration of our young whose departure is turning the country into a desert inhabited mostly by old poor Greeks and rich foreigners. The problem is that, whenever MeRA25 proposes these minimum policy changes (e.g., the end of prepayment of small business taxes, or the reduction in VAT from 24% to 15%, the replacement of the secondary market for non-performing loans with a public bad bank), the answer we get is: If you do these things, Frankfurt with will shut your banks and throw you out of the euro. At which point, I respond: Let them do their worst. We will implement all moderate, necessary and logical policies without which Greece will die. You see, I happen to hold the view that the currency should be serving the people, not the other way round.

Why do you say that Greece’s “economic miracle” is just an illusion, and instead that Greece is more bankrupt than ever?

Yes. When we went bankrupt in 2010, our debt was €300 billion and our income €220 billion. Today, our debt is €420 billion and our income around €200 billion. Add to that the trebling of non-performing private debt and you get the true picture. The only reason there is this illusion of a ‘Greek economic miracle’ is that the ECB is still buying our debt, vulture funds are making huge profits by buying private properties at hugely knockdown prices and, as I mentioned, the government has been borrowing-and-spending as if there is no tomorrow.

Are you still convinced that the eurozone is going to “crash against the rocks”?

The only thing that stopped the eurozone from dying was the nearly €8 trillion that the ECB printed and passed on to the financial sector since 2009. The result was, first, asset price inflation that benefitted only the rich and, after the pandemic and Ukraine, huge price inflation that again only benefitted the rich, while causing a huge cost-of-living, with added poverty, crisis across the eurozone. Now, the ECB is in a terrible dilemma: Push interest rates further up, and risk crushing Italy, banks and corporations? Or not increase interest rates and watch inflation run away from them? Clearly, they will try to buy time by pushing interest rates up while also printing money for the banks and the corporations. Meanwhile, as a result of these insane and misanthropic policies followed by the eurozone since 2010, Europe is falling behind America and China on every technological front that matters: AI, sophisticated batteries, microchips, renewable energy etc. So, the price we paid for Draghi’s “whatever it takes to save the euro”, in conjunction with universal austerity, is a continent full of poorer Europeans that is falling behind the rest of the world economically, technologically and, yes, geostrategically – with the added misery of growing discontent that feeds into varieties of neofascism.

The left is in crisis in many European countries. What is changing in Europe?

As in the 1930s, the left’s failure is giving rise to a new form of disguised fascism that is having a revival across a Europe which has lost to the United States any degree of sovereignty it once aspired to; especially after the war in Ukraine.

Next year there is a vote in the European elections. What do you think is the proposal to work around, to build a credible alternative?

I still believe that the European Green New Deal that our movement, DiEM25, presented to Europeans just before the 2019 European Parliament elections, is the only agenda that can do the trick of putting Europe back on the road toward sustainability, poverty-reduction and technological progress. Unfortunately, there is no pan-European alliance of political parties to put it to Europe’s voters. DiEM25 will try again, of course, but I doubt that we will have a better chance to be heard in 2024 than we had in 2019.

You are a close friend of Elly Schlein. She said “the PD has done so much damage in Italy”. Now, with Schlein, is the centre-left becoming left again?

I send my love, solidarity and wishes to Elly. I fear that her worst enemies are within the PD. Her success will depend on dealing with them, before she can take on Meloni.

How do you judge Giorgia Meloni’s government? In terms of economics (she, for example, agrees with you on the EU’s fiscal compact), and in terms of rights and ideology? Is the legacy of Fratelli d’Italia scary, in your opinion, compared to the historical Italian far right? Are neo-fascist sympathies scary, or are they outdated categories?

So far, Meloni has been to the Italian far right what Tsipras was to the Greek radical left: a Prime Minister who followed to the letter the commands of Brussels, Frankfurt and Washington while trying to pay lip service to the ideological principles of her party. That her party’s ideological origins, rooted in midwar fascism, are scary, there is little doubt.

Over the years, have you forgiven Angela Merkel anything, or is your judgment always the same?

I have always been nuanced, careful and fair in my criticism of Angela Merkel. My greatest criticism, which has been confirmed by events since her retirement, was that she wasted the huge political capital that she so carefully and skilfully built up over the years. She was the only European politician who, between 2009 and 2012, had the political capital to unite Europe, to set the process in motion for the EU’s real political union. Instead of doing that, she frittered her political capital away in one attempt after the other to prevent Europe’s political unification – the result being the sorry state of Germany today within an EU that the rest of the world (the US and China in particular) looks at as a sad irrelevance.

 

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