Varoufakis, the mouse, the elephants and the game of chicken


Wednesday was another victory lap for Yanis Varoufakis on his seemingly endless European book tour. Bloomberg Television presented an “exclusive” 15-minute interview with him, in which he offered advice on the Brexit negotiations and on how to solve the problem of the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, he declared that Emmanuel Macron is in a hurry to nowhere, and, in the final minutes of the interchange, he described Greece as “collateral damage” of the incompetence of Paris and Berlin. Oh, and his “Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment” was short-listed for best political book by a non-parliamentarian by the Parliamentary Book Awards.

And this was by midday. Maybe more honors followed. Varoufakis, as he is widely known, has become the heir of the few Greeks who became household names beyond their country’s narrow borders. Onassis, Callas, Mouskouri, Theodorakis, Vangelis, Demis Roussos, George “Pap Test” Papanicolaou, Costa-Gavras. Now the Greeks have propelled Yanis “One n” Varoufakis out into the world, riding his virtual surfboard on the seismic waves of Greece’s enduring crisis. His fame rests not on achievements but on failure and fortune: on Alexis Tsipras’s combination of gullibility and vindictiveness in appointing him to negotiate with Greece’s creditors; on Varoufakis’s narcissism and relentless self-promotion, which, combined with fluent English, are perfect for the age of narcissistic self-promoters; on the dearth of serious thinkers in the European media with the self-confidence to separate the interesting from the catastrophic in Varoufakis’s words and deeds.

Yanis Varoufakis has charisma, passion and a strong media presence. He also lacks judgment and a sense of responsibility. For Greece, once Tsipras put him in a position where his theories and actions had consequences, this was disastrous; for international news media, Varoufakis personified the struggle of the plucky Greeks against the rather less photogenic “Deep Establishment,” as per his book. This was a great if simplistic narrative and a lovely role for Varoufakis to play – so much so that he continues to play it. He was, of course, playing with loaded dice from the start: He could present demands and make threats that he knew would not sway Greece’s creditors and partners, secure in the understanding that he could only benefit from this. If the creditors gave in to his demands he would be a hero, if they did not, he could always blame them for their evil intent. When Tsipras realized that he would shoulder the blame for Varourakis’s failed negotiation he caved to the European Union partners’ demands. Again, this left Varoufakis declaring his own virtue and others’ weakness. However simplistic – and transparent from the start – this strategy worked, as we see by the attention still paid to Varoufakis outside Greece.

Varoufakis’s potential for damage was compounded by his good fortune (and Greece’s misfortune) in being placed in a position of responsibility. Without Tsipras, Varoufakis would not have found himself finance minister; without Varoufakis, Tsipras would not have felt so sure of himself as to allow Greece to come to the brink of dropping out of the eurozone. Varoufakis comported himself with all the bravado of a gambler who knows that he is playing with other peoples’ money (people incapable of holding him to account). The glamorous lifestyle, the lighthearted way in which he blamed the Establishment (i.e. the European Central Bank) for calling his bluff and the way in which he recorded meetings and conversations with colleagues in Athens and his counterparts abroad suggest a cynical and amoral streak that could not lead to any good for Greece. That same indifference to the consequences for others helped him write the books that he has peddled since prancing away from Greece’s politics.

Asked by Bloomberg on Wednesday to comment on Greece, Varoufakis was revealing: “Greece is collateral damage in the incapacity of Paris and Berlin to eventually come up with the answer to the question ‘How do we reconfigure the eurozone?’ This is the tragedy of the Greek people. Here are the elephants fighting and the little mouse is being trampled. It was always clear to me, from 2010, 2011 onwards, that Paris and Berlin would not move on sorting out what is a relatively minor problem – the Greek crisis – until and unless they decide what future they want for the eurozone.”

Even if we were to assume that Greece is simply powerless and the blameless victim of evil partners, if this was Varoufakis’s understanding of the battlefield, why did he push the mouse into a game of chicken with such cruel and callous elephants? Perhaps he will explain in a future book – a book on how to lose and always come out a winner.