Greek and German bruisers limber up for ‘rumble in the eurozone’

They are both tough men of a certain age used to getting their way.

In one corner stands Wolfgang Schaeuble, the dry 72-year-old German Finance Minister and self-appointed guardian of the European Union’s fiscal orthodoxy.

And at the opposite end of Europe’s austerity divide glowers former Communist Panagiotis Lafazanis, Greece’s obdurate new energy and output minister.

Schaeuble and Lafazanis, 63, have not yet sat down together around a negotiating table in Brussels, but a clash between them is unavoidable nonetheless as Athens and Berlin square up for another bail-out showdown.

Lafazanis is responsible for some of Greece’s main state companies that were slated to be privatized under the rescue plan agreed with the EU and the International Monetary Fund.

These include dominant electricity provider PPC, state gas distributor DEPA and leading refiners HELPE.

State stakes in all three were to be sold to private investors as part of the Greece’s bail-out deal until January, when the new hard-left Syriza government pulled the plug on the plan.

“No privatisation will be held in the energy sector — neither at PPC, nor at DEPA nor at HELPE,” Lafazanis said at the time.

When electricity workers were given a pay rise this week — to general consternation — the ministry did not object.

Schaeuble, however, insists on the new Greek government honoring the country’s existing pledges, and he has castigated Syriza for making promises they cannot afford to keep.

Schaeuble v Lafazanis

In one notable remark, the former German tax official professed to “feeling sorry” for the Greeks for having elected a government that is “acting irresponsibly.”

“Being in government is a rendez-vous with reality. Quite frequently it is not as nice as the dream,” he said last month.

The German minister has been repeatedly caricatured in the Syriza daily Avgi wearing a Nazi-era German army uniform.

Like many top Syriza members, Lafazanis’ political pedigree comes from being persecuted as a youth by the US-backed military dictatorship that ruled Greece four decades ago.

But the former mathematician has come a long way since the 1970s. Elected to parliament five times in the last 15 years, he held senior posts in the communist party before joining Syriza, and now controls its main left-wing faction, known as Left Platform.

At a Syriza central committee meeting last month, Left Platform strongly criticised a compromise loan deal reached between the government and Greece’s EU-IMF creditors last month.

At the closed-door meeting days later, Lafazanis complained that the government was “adopting language reminiscent of its creditors,” in a strong message to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s chairman.

Left Platform in the past has also called for a controlled Greek exit from the eurozone and the nationalisation of Greek banks.

Nikos Konstandaras, managing editor of Greek liberal daily Kathimerini, says Lafazanis could be seen as the “antithesis” of Schaeuble.

“Schaeuble is a politician of consensus. (Whereas) Lafazanis is a prime example of a lack of experience in reaching consensus,” he notes.

“His view is, ‘If we are right, the laws must bend to our will,'” Konstandaras said.

“He is one of the torchbearers of the leftist movement and he will not back down.”


Schaeuble — who has described himself as “pitiless” in his management of Germany’s public purse — comes from the same region as the proverbial Swabian housewife praised by German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a paragon of thrift and self-control.

So far he has not acknowledged Lafazanis’ presence, never mind crossed swords directly with him.

But his Greek opposite is not going away.

Lafazanis even upbraided the government’s maverick Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who is trying to negotiate a new four-year reform plan with Greece’s creditors.

“We will apply our radical program to the letter,” the energy minister told parliament last month.

“Merkel and Schaeuble will not be able to blackmail us into backing down… the Greek people cannot be blackmailed,” he said.

“I wonder if Varoufakis and Lafazanis have actually spoken. I don’t think they have even exchanged glances in the cabinet,” said Konstandaras.


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