Yanis Varoufakis: Greece has to stop being a debt prison

Ahead of the parliamentary elections in Greece on May 21, German newspaper taz interviewed DiEM25 co-founder and MeRA25 general secretary Yanis Varoufakis, where he spoke about our pan-European movement, the critical issues facing Greece, his political opponents and more.

taz: In February 2016, you presented DiEM25 – a “pan-European, progressive movement that wants to democratise the EU before it dissolves itself” – at the Volksbühne in Berlin. Why there of all places?

Yanis: The Volksbühne has a historical symbolic power for the workers’ movement. We wanted to show: The euro crisis is not a conflict between the North and the South, but between the oligarchy and the peoples of Europe. DiEM25 is a movement of pro-Europeans who no longer accept that Europe’s powerful are destroying the continent.

How has DiEM25 developed?

We have around 130,000 members. That is not much. There should be many more. We are present throughout the EU, but also beyond. We have grassroots groups in Israel, where Jews and Palestinians work together, in Serbia, in Turkey, in the UK.

Before DiEM25 was founded, you were part of the then government of Alexis Tsipras. The other day, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote that your former party colleague from the Alliance of the Radical Left (Syriza) “fired you as finance minister” in the summer of 2015, after which you “disappeared from the scene for the rest of Europe”. Do you have anything to set straight?

That is a distortion of the truth. We parted amicably.

What do you mean by that?

On the evening of 5 July 2015, immediately after the results of the referendum were announced (in which the Greeks rejected a continuation of Athens’ austerity dictate at the behest of its public lenders, the EU, the ECB and the IMF, editor’s note), the then head of government Alexis Tsipras succinctly told me that he would turn the “no” into a “yes” – in other words, capitulate. I replied to him, “Alexis, I will not follow you.”

You resigned.

If I had signed this capitulation like the other members of the government, I would probably have remained in the government. Tsipras even offered me to stay in it despite my no. I answered him: “I don’t want to sit in a government that capitulates.” The matter is simple: Tsipras had broken with our line and I did not follow him.

It didn’t hurt you: in the last parliamentary elections in Greece, you and MeRA25 managed to get over the three-percent hurdle at the first attempt. Now you are running again in the new elections in Greece on May 21. What is your goal?

We want to govern.

Govern or co-govern?

Governing. You have to look the voter in the eye and say, “When I am prime minister, I will do this and that.” So that he can compare his options.

For almost four years, the conservative Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been governing alone in Athens. A good time for Greece?

An unpleasant tragedy, in all areas. The Greek national debt has increased by around 50 billion euros under Mitsotakis, and economic output remains at the 2019 level. This has deepened Greece’s national bankruptcy. Freedom of the press, freedom of expression are restricted. Mitsotakis also focuses on xenophobia and racism: look at the border fence, this wall of shame, on the border with Turkey. Or the pushbacks in the Aegean. This happens so often that one can confidently speak of a premeditated murder of our fellow human beings who drown helplessly in the Mediterranean. Mitsotakis is only doing this to ensnare the right-wing radicals. We, as Europeans, can’t gloat and ridicule Trump and at the same time celebrate Mitsotakis here.

Isn’t that exaggerated?

Not at all. On the migration issue, Mitsotakis is like Trump. He has also brought the secret service under his direct control and used it to wiretap politicians, even his ministers, journalists and military personnel. In other countries in Europe, that alone would have cost him his post.

Can you also name a positive contribution?

The digitalisation of the state. But the most important data of a state are those of its tax administration. Under pressure from the Troika (Greece’s creditors: EU, ECB and IMF, editor’s note), we have a so-called “independent tax authority”. But it is not independent, the Troika controls it.

Tsipras had always stressed that he wanted to strive for a coalition of “all progressive forces”. Now he has excluded you and MeRA25 as possible coalition partners shortly before the elections. What do you say to Tsipras’ attitude?

From the beginning, Tsipras only wanted to form a coalition with the social democratic PASOK. Now it is becoming clear that MeRA25 will make it into parliament again. Both parties, Mitsotakis’ Nea Dimokratia (ND) and Tsipras’ Syriza, have panicked, for different reasons. If MeRA25 is back in parliament, it will be more difficult for ND to continue governing alone. Syriza, in turn, would have to talk to us.

Does Tsipras have something personal against you? Are you still talking to each other?

No, we don’t – what should we say to each other? But I don’t take it personally. Tsipras’ problem with me is that I was the only Greek finance minister who carefully read all the packages of laws on austerity and did not sign any of them.

The Greek oligarch Giannis Alafouzos, shipowner and owner of the pro-government channel Skai TV, has denounced your MP Kleon Grigoriadis. Grigoriadis had criticised Alafouzos’ fleet in parliament for transporting Russian oil, according to media reports, and at the same time had alleged Putin friends in Greece insulted via Skai commentators. taz also reported on this.

We condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in the strongest possible terms, but we also don’t want an escalation of war. I’ve heard so much since 2015 that it can’t upset me any more, so actions like Alafouzos’ are child’s play in the afternoon.

Speaking of escalation: under pressure from the US and Germany, there could soon be an agreement between Greece and its arch-enemy Turkey, an “Aegean Agreement”, to settle the dispute over maritime borders.

There should be no bilateral talks with Turkey. Instead, we are in favour of a regional conference with the countries bordering the Mediterranean, such as Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Libya and Cyprus. Everyone can record their wishes regarding the maritime borders on a map. This map is then to be submitted to the International Court of Justice in The Hague for a decision. In this way, there would be binding maritime borders for everyone.

There are also conflicts over a national border: Cyprus has been de facto divided for almost 50 years after the Turkish invasion of the north of the island. Turkey demands a two-state solution. The Republic of Cyprus, an EU member, on the other hand, one state. What about you?

We want one state of Cyprus. Just as our Turkish Cypriot comrades in the north of the island want. They suffer the most from the division of the island. They are victims twice over: of the division and of the occupation by the Turkish military.

Large natural gas and oil deposits are said to be located in the eastern Mediterranean. This repeatedly leads to tensions between Athens and Ankara, almost to war in the summer of 2020. Should these deposits be exploited? [And should that be] with Turkey?

We are an ecological party. We do not want any exploitation of the fossil fuels in the Mediterranean, neither by us nor by others. Instead, we call for the massive construction and expansion of mobile maritime wind power plants to generate energy.

The left is in crisis all over Europe. How could they regain voter support, grow again?

In 2019, we had worked out a 150-page concept on a “Green Deal” for Europe together with the Spanish Podemos, Die Linke in Germany and the French communists. That would be a very good basis for cooperation between the left on the continent.

Why is the left spectrum in Europe so fragmented?

We on the left are tearing each other apart. That is the disease of all those who want to change the world.

What would Greece have to be like for you to sit back and say: “This is the Greece I want”?

For that to happen, two things have to happen: First, Greece has to stop being a debt prison. The national debt and that of private households is a prison. A debt cut is needed, for the people as well as the state. Secondly, we must not miss the green industrial revolution. I would like to see mobile maritime wind turbines all over the Mediterranean so that our country can have an energy surplus, turn it into green hydrogen and export it to the rest of Europe. That would be the sustainability Greece needs.


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