The idea of a unified Europe didn’t always elicit the current mixture of exasperation, boredom, and rage, in politicians and ordinary people alike. In fact, there was a time when the European Union seemed like a great initiative, especially on a continent ravaged first by two hot wars, then broken in half by a cold one. A permanent peace between neighboring nations founded on a common market and sealed with freedom of movement for all might have required bureaucratic impositions, but it also functioned as an insurance policy. Besides, there was something for everyone in this new idea of Europe. Students, through Erasmus programs, learned new languages and made friends in foreign countries. Blue-collar workers could go abroad for better jobs. Manufacturers could import and export goods with no fees and less paperwork. Children of the European elite found positions in Strasbourg and Brussels. Billionaires no longer had to worry about the power of their country’s home currency while vacationing in Courchevel or Monaco.
That isn’t to say the union would be problem-free: Unresolved conflicts between national sovereignty and a supranational bureaucracy were baked into its very structure. And the EU never totally figured out a unified fiscal policy, or how it would deal with large-scale bank failures. Indeed, it took until the financial crisis of 2008 for one of the most fundamental tensions of all—that sovereign nations sharing a currency could not make their own decisions about borrowing, lending, and spending—to become a cause for alarm. When banks went on a continent-wide lending spree in good times, the economy hummed along happily. In the grim post-2008 years, Europe’s political and economic union appeared to be in a state of imminent disintegration. When European leaders began pushing austerity on countries like Greece as the only way out of bankruptcy—and when their counterparts farther west felt like they were still picking up the bill—freedom of movement and a common market and currency didn’t seem like such a good trade-off.
Greece was not the only country to rebel against these conditions. Nationalist politicians throughout the continent began to speak of Europe not as one people, but as a hodgepodge of countries bound by pesky supranational rules. Brexit put this notion to a referendum: Why help faceless Europeans when there are Brits down the street who need help too? And why bother with the entire supranational enterprise anyway? Nor are Brexiteers the only ones asking these questions. Many on the left—from Greece’s Syriza to Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise—also had grown uncomfortable with the idea and especially the economic institutions of “Europe.”
When Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister who hopes to become the country’s next prime minister in 2019, first came to international prominence in the aftermath of the financial crisis, he was one of those left-wing politicians critical of Europe’s economic institutions, though not necessarily of the idea of Europe itself. Even as a young man, Varoufakis had always been struck by the idea of a united Europe as a way to “forge bonds relying not on kin, language, ethnicity, [or] a common enemy, but on common values and humanist principles.” His brief stint in the Syriza government never shook that conviction, but it did shape his ideas about how Europe should be reformed, and his trilogy of books about the financial crisis—The Global Minotaur; And the Weak Suffer What They Must?; and Adults in the Room—along with his latest book to be released in English, Talking to My Daughter About the Economy, all advance his vision of a more democratic international system.