He speaks with ease about Alan Bennett, primarily about the British author and playwright’s annual chronicling of his life for the London Review of Books. He is a keen reader of journals, and had just purchased the last tome of Seferis’ diaries published by Ikaros – which he couldn’t wait to read – when he showed up for our interview without his trademark red backpack. Worn out by age and hard use, the iconic accoutrement has been temporarily replaced with a burgundy “posh version,” as Euclid Tsakalotos says.
The red backpack – a necessity to help with stubborn back pain – came to be associated with the former finance minister and actually inspired the title of his newly published book, “In the Red Backpack” (Polis).
Besides the SYRIZA manifesto and the memorandum, his bag would always contain a piece of literature. Even during the crucial negotiations with Greece’s international creditors, Tsakalotos would ask for a half-hour break, during which he would read a few pages of Jonathan Coe, Bennett or Edouard Louis.
If he had to squeeze all of his belongings into that red backpack, what would he take? “A CD compilation of Gustav Mahler, Mick Herron’s spy novel series ‘Slow Horses,’ and a notebook to write down my thoughts.”
In your “political diary” you wrote that “in the wake of the pandemic, every one of us must rediscover their human identity.” What has been the impact of this pandemic on a social as well as political level, in your opinion?
When people ask me such questions, I recall [the late Chinese premier] Zhou Enlai being asked about the influence of the French Revolution. “Too early to say,” he replied. The post-pandemic era will be a long one. As I see it, mentalities have been greatly impacted. I see some positive effects: Public health is now seen in a different light. But I also note some negative effects: a sense of futility, this idea that we cannot control things. You know the funny quote about economists, “An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen.” I am very reluctant to make long-term predictions. The new generation, including my children [Tsakalotos is the father of a 21-year-old daughter and 18-year-old twins], seems sort of uptight. On certain issues, such as the #MeToo movement, they have become radicalized, whereas on others they have a sense of futility and fear. There is a certain paradox: more conservatism hand in hand with radicalization. I do believe however that the political system, the left as well as the right, has not managed to convince the young people about the merits of [political] participation.
Do you believe that the political system has drawn any lessons from the pandemic?
I did not expect that patron-client state relations would make such a strong comeback. Although, as you can imagine, I am not a big fan of [conservative Prime Minister] Kyriakos Mitsotakis, I did believe that he would make a difference in that respect.
What are Mitsotakis’ strengths in your opinion?
He is good at picking advisers. It’s not a small matter.
What is, in your opinion, opposition SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras’ biggest strength?
It’s two things: First, he has a charisma with people. My daughter said, back at the age of 14, that when Tsipras is greeting people he is like a fish in water, whereas she said of me that I am like fish in honey. Second, his tactical skills allow him to examine an issue from many different perspectives.
What about his weaknesses?
There’s two: He suffers from an unjustifiable insecurity. And he is worse than Mitsotakis in picking his aides. To be fair, however, he acknowledges that himself.
Would you criticize the left in any way?
It has failed to develop a collective understanding about the ways in which the values of participation, democracy and solidarity can be expanded to aspects of the real economy.
Is there a real life model of what you are describing?
Only in part, like for example in the participatory budgeting in local administration where citizens are involved in the process of deciding whether more public money is spent on areas like trash collection or sports facilities. Citizens are expected to make decisions and, at the same time, accept the consequences of those decisions.
Have you seen this system at work?
In various cities in Latin America, Spain and Italy – always at the level of local administration. There are many successful social cooperative enterprises that operate along these lines.
You are a PAOK soccer club supporter. What was your reaction to the brutal killing of 19-year-old Aris fan Alkis Kambanos?
The root of the problem is that soccer clubs are controlled by people who have absolutely no interest in soccer. Economic power translates into political power. I believe that New Democracy has strong ties to economic interests so it’s hard to see how it could possibly drill to the bone of corruption. Soccer needs to change on every level and that, of course, also includes PAOK.
Despite the efforts you claim to have made as a leftist government, many people turned their back on SYRIZA in the last elections and continue to do so in polls today. Why is that?
First of all, I believe that winning 32% after a bailout agreement and the Prespes name deal is a very big achievement. Other governments that implemented bailout agreements saw their ratings plunge to 8% or 10%. The anti-SYRIZA wave also gained momentum due to the pandemic. The government did well in imposing the first lockdown; people believed it was an effective government. However, because of the rising death toll it has started to lose ground. For SYRIZA, on the other hand, the pandemic meant that it lost its contact with the people – live events or visits to food markets, for example. Contact with the people was our oxygen.
As a minister, were you affected by the glamour of power?
Not as much as some others. That does not mean I am a better person. But if you attended a school that was founded in 1500 [St Paul’s School in London], and then the Queen’s College at Oxford University, which was founded in 1341, you cannot be insecure. You develop an urbane confidence. I don’t mean to sound arrogant. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was the aim of the left that all people would have the confidence and the tools to feel that way. One of the worst things about neoliberalism is not the inequalities; it is that social mobility has been reduced. The chances of a working-class child climbing the social ladder are far smaller than in the 1960s. Unless that child is very bright, receives scholarships, stands out for their intellectual rigor. Otherwise, the chances are meager.
How did you, a radical left-wing politician, manage to abide with the memorandum policies?
We could not escape. The question was: Do you go home and pass the hot potato onto someone else? No. I decided I had to move forward.
In your book, your references to former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis are critically distant. You mention his “absolute need for self-confirmation.” Have you watched the movie “Adults in the Room” by Costa-Gavras?
No, I didn’t have the stomach for it. I am portrayed, I was told, as the person who carried the slides. I have, of course, read many parts of the book. Varoufakis indeed believes that he is the man with the bright ideas, which he occasionally does have because he is an inspired character, but which he sometimes does not. He may sometimes think outside of the box but he does not think in party terms. Next to Varoufakis, Tsipras is a model of collectivity and democratic principles.