What was the great objective behind 19th-century liberalism? It was, as Marx never tired of pointing out, to separate the economic sphere from the political sphere and to confine politics to the latter while leaving the economic sphere to capital. It is liberalism’s splendid success in achieving this long-held goal that we are now observing. —Yanis Varoufakis
Days after the January 25 election that brought the left party Syriza to power in Greece, its eloquent and highly rational new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, rode his 1300cc Yamaha straight at the Berlin Wall. Stopping off to shake hands with potential (if unlikely) allies in Paris and in London, seizing the world’s attention with his raptor’s glare and bright-blue tieless shirts, he emerged from his first meeting with Wolfgang Schäuble, his German counterpart, to break the frame of European politicians’ coded, business-as-usual encounters with the press.
Schäuble spoke somewhat hesitantly of rules and tax inspectors and agreeing to disagree; Varoufakis spoke with passion of the European project, of the need to respect the continuity of Europe’s institutions without crushing the “fragile flower” of democracy. He described Greece’s humanitarian crisis and warned of the dangers ahead should his government fail, asking for Germany’s help against the resurgence of Nazism in Greece, which had fought so hard against it. And, in requesting time to free Greece from its debt trap, he didn’t evade his country’s own responsibilities, referring to Greece’s “flimsy business model” and to Syriza’s determination to push through deep reforms, combating tax evasion and corruption as well as restarting the economy.
For most Greeks, Varoufakis’s frankness came as a huge relief: an open acknowledgment at the heart of European power of the truth as they are living it, an appeal made not as a supplicant but as an equal partner. For others (or often the same ones), it was terrifying: the long-awaited and desired confrontation risked a break with Europe, which is not what the vast majority of Greeks now want. In Germany, Varoufakis’s manner was read as arrogance and rudeness. One German MP asked if he could be replaced; Schäuble said he pitied the Greeks for electing “an irresponsible government.”
The negotiations that followed between Greece and its eurozone partners were tortuous and torture-like. Draft proposals agreed to by Varoufakis with Pierre Moscovici, eurozone commissioner for economic and financial affairs, and Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem were switched at the last moment, at German insistence, for much harsher terms. When Syriza cried uncle and submitted a letter requesting an extension of the loan agreement—reneging on a central election promise—the German finance ministry immediately dismissed it out of hand; German officials called it a “Trojan horse.” Relations between Greece and Germany have reached a low unseen since World War II. But other conservative governments that have implemented austerity programs—Portugal, Ireland and especially Spain, where Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party is facing a challenge from the anti-austerity Podemos—were also tough on the Greeks. They have no interest in suggesting to their voters that they could get a better deal out of the eurozone—if they elect a left-wing government.