Grey technocrat, colorful outsider at center of Greek drama

For the third time in a little more than a week, 19 European finance ministers gathered in Brussels Friday to try to cut through the rhetoric and hammer out some way for debt-plagued Greece to stay in the euro.

Key to the drama, is a duel between two men who could not be more different: the longtime godfather of the euro, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, and brash newcomer Yanis Varoufakis, a neo-Marxist blogger and Athens man-about-town who is now the eurozone’s newest, and most unlikely, finance minister.

Varoufakis is something of an alien to the Brussels decision-making machinery, with its gray suits and opaque sound-bites by politicians looking to not give anything away.

The Greek finance minister, by contrast, makes a habit of answering any question thrown at him and is unafraid to break the codes of EU negotiating, angering other ministers, Schaeuble chief among them.

“It’s terrible; the Greeks seem to live on another planet,” a frustrated European official said after the first Eurogroup meeting of ministers ended in acrimony.

That Eurogroup meeting, on February 11, began promisingly with the tieless Varoufakis, sporting a Burberry scarf, entering the summit building in a storm of camera flashes, clearly the eurozone’s new star.

Inside he was greeted warmly enough, including by a grinning IMF head Christine Lagarde, wearing a leather jacket for her first meeting with the motorcyle-loving Varoufakis.

The talks began and after a few hours, forecasts that Greece would give way quickly seemed well-founded: Schaeuble, France’s Michel Sapin and other officials went home, leaving Eurogroup chief and Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem to seal a closing statement.

But that statement would never be.

As journalists waited in a stuffy briefing room, Varoufakis called Athens to get the final go-ahead and instead got a lecture: the statement as planned was unacceptable to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

But in a shock for Brussels, instead of quietly seeking some other wording, no matter how tortuous, officials in Greece fired off their own statement carefully delineating how the proposed communique fell short, to the joy of thousands of protesters assembled in central Athens as the talks unfolded.

“Yanis, isn’t it a progress that we don’t have a bullshit statement,” cried out a reporter from London’s Daily Telegraph after the talks finally ended.

“I think you can say that,” Varoufakis responded.

For Act II of the Greek drama, the scene moved to an EU leaders’ summit the next day.

This was Tsipras’s first time in front of his EU peers, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader and chief-skeptic when it comes to Greece’s intentions.

Merkel and Tsipras brushed shoulders briefly in what the German leader called a “friendly” exchange. Merkel was exhausted from all night in talks with Vladimir Putin over Ukraine.

Once the summit got underway, an observer said Merkel “enjoyed her neighbors” and paid little attention when the newcomer across the table introduced himself to colleagues over dessert.

“It was a very pleasant summit, without conflict or heated debate,” said European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker after the meeting, though he later admitted he had been “very nervous” about how events would unfold.

The next Eurogroup meeting on Monday was supposed to be the marathon where the ministers would hammer out a light-of-dawn agreement just like in the bad old days of the eurozone debt crisis.

But in less than two hours, it was over and again the Greeks brashly leaked an “unacceptable” proposal drawn up, they said, by the Germans.

In a chaotic press conference, Varoufakis again broke the rules, offering a play-by-play of the negotiations, including a secret offer made by Juncker’s Commission that the minister said Athens could seriously consider.

Aghast at this unexpected transparency, Economics Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici and other EU officials hurried out of the aborted talks, unusually unavailable to confirm or deny.

“He created a bloc” against him, isolating Athens when it needed allies most, a bitter top EU official said later.

“This is no longer theater,” a diplomatic source added.

Amid the recriminations, Athens won only an ultimatum: either ask for an extension to its hated bailout by the end of the week, or consider itself cut off from further financing, with all the terrible consequences that could entail.

With a “Grexit” looming, Juncker, the former Luxembourg premier and veteran of all things Brussels, sprang into action, trying to get Tsipras, Dijsselbloem and others on the same page, in an effort to finally engage Berlin.

The extension request from Athens duly arrived and a Eurogroup was set for the next day, forcing Schaeuble and Varoufakis back together to the same table.

“Varoufakis, Schaeuble is obviously a culture shock, a virile clash,” a source said. “We just don’t want these two in the same room.”