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I’ll remember Yanis Varoufakis’ substance


Yanis Varoufakis. Photo credit smh

Yanis Varoufakis. Photo credit smh

The media was mesmerised by his motorbike, but Greece’s former Finance Minister inspired ordinary people by the way he faced down Europe.

FORMER Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis refuses to comment on his resignation as he leaves his home in Athens on Monday.

Back in January, when I was half-awake while listening to the interminable euro discussion, a man for whom English is a second language started speaking poetry.

He was talking of his fellow Greeks, whom he said chose “to quote your own Dylan Thomas, to stop going gently into the night and to rage against the dying of the light”. I perked up, and I wasn’t the only one. This was Yanis Varoufakis, an economist, blogger and academic, who was soon to become Syriza’s Finance Minister.

Eloquently, he put into words the suffering and resilience of his fellow Greeks, but this alone did not fascinate the media. It was his “flamboyance” they focused on. Clearly, in the world of Eurocracy, to not wear a tie is radical. Or rude. Or both. Sometimes he wore a leather jacket. Or a Barbour, or a shirt that was perhaps a little bit too tight. He signalled simply that he was not another “suit”, and made the rest of them look stuffy, uptight and clonish.

He continued to ride his motorbike instead of being driven by a chauffeur. In this upside-down world, this level of normality meant he was dubbed everything from a rock star to a sex god.

European leaders told Greece it has five days to agree a reform plan, or face leaving the single currency. He smiled to himself, as well he might. The one foot he put wrong was a spread of him and his wife in Paris Match. It was one of those “laughing with salad” pictures. No one should ever do that.

But no matter, for what Varoufakis did, like the rest of his party, has been deeply confusing. What is this complicated game theory he promulgates? I will tell you what it is. It is attempting to keep the promises you made when you were elected to try to get the best possible deal for your country. It is refusing to be intimidated by undemocratic forces and standing up for your principles.

Varoufakis was sidelined a week or so ago, not because of the “disrespectful” style of his jackets, but because of the directness of his argument. As the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said, he speaks the language of economists better than they do. He showed how financial issues had become politicised, how old paradigms were broken. He spoke to Eurocrats as equals.

He has always insisted that the responsibility for the Greek recovery did not lie with Greece alone, that there had to be realism in the conditions demanded by Greece’s creditors, as the sheer human cost was too much to bear. He showed how financial issues had become politicised, how the old paradigms were broken. Worse, he spoke to Eurocrats as equals. He spoke to the rest of us as human beings, describing what Europe had laid on the shoulders of Greece as “fiscal waterboarding”. He railed at the birthplace of democracy being turned into what he called “a debt colony”.

As his heroic people rose up against “debt-bondage” he gave a press conference in a grey T-shirt and announced his resignation, explaining that some Eurogroup participants don’t want him in the discussion. He says he does not care for the privilege of office but for collective support for Tsipras.

He is a man who walks like he talk, and that talk is open. This is so unlike the secretive deals usually made in airless rooms in Brussels. Here is a politician acting on his beliefs. He will be remembered not for his style, but for his substance. He faced down the automatons by insisting the Greek people should no longer be punished. And his people were with him. He refused the Eurocrats’ parameters and secrecy. He spoke with decency, and not in code. He is not afraid of the word “collective”. Nor is Syriza. Tsipras has said, “negotiation does not belong to one person, it never did”.

It is possible that Varoufakis was pushed rather than jumped, to smoothen a deal, but whatever the case, he will not disappear, even as he revs off into the sunset. He knows, above all, that real style is substance. He saved his best look for last when he said, “I shall wear the creditors’ loathing with pride”.
•This article was published in the Guardian of London under the title ‘As Yanis Varoufakis revs off into the sunset, it’s his substance I’ll remember.’

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