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Analysis
The Greeks turn the tables

The Greeks turn the tables

Varoufakis the victim vaulting to victory 

by David Marsh

Wed 11 Feb 2015

Yanis Varoufakis is an unlikely minister from an impossible country heading for an improbable victory. When he strides, tieless and tireless, into the Brussels Eurogroup arena today, the Greek finance minister has the odds stacked against him. Precisely because of that, he looks likely to win.

Varoufakis, economic standard-bearer of the far-left Syriza government, has done whatever it takes to stoke the hostility of his peers. In a parlour packed with less-than-convincingly multilingual finance ministers, this soundbite-toting, neckwear-despising university teacher speaks far better English than anyone else. Not a factor destined to boost his popularity.

Varoufakis rails rhetorically against paying back the full value of Greek loans. He terms Italian debt unsustainable. He summons up war claims on Germany which decades ago were termed unpayable. He gives succour to opposition parties in Spain, Portugal and France, baying for concessions that, if enacted, would dismantle austerity policies and demolish debt mountains around the continent.

The minister has a lecture room of ministers before him. To Wolfgang Schäuble, the German, the most senior, potentially both his most dangerous adversary and his best friend, Varoufakis pays homage: mentor and guardian of Europe. The youthful Dutch Eurogroup chairman, with whom he has already clashed publicly, Varoufakis will do his best to ignore. The rest are his pupils.
Varoufakis knows the rules. He has studied them. Now he is out to break them. Breathtakingly. From serial debtors, creditor countries expect grovelling not gravitas.

Varoufakis’ strength lies in his and the system’s weakness. His trump card: the contagion of Greek uncertainty. Varoufakis speaks a truth that his ministerial counterparties recognise yet cannot articulate. The euro area is fragile, and unpredictable. If Athens absconds, the gangrenous Greek limb hewn off, economic and monetary union could flourish. Equally, it could die.

No one knows how it would end.  No one – neither the head of the Eurogroup, nor the head of the European Central Bank, nor the head of the Commission, nor the head of the Council nor all the other tide of tinpot presidents arrayed around this disunited Union – is terribly keen to find out the answer. Certainly not the acting head of Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her Christian Democrat predecessor Helmut Kohl won stature by reeling in East Germany. She does not wish to go down in history by losing both Greece and Ukraine, possibly in the same year.

By calling down the language of suffering, Varoufakis the victim is vaulting towards victory. Precisely because they defy reason, his oratorical flourishes are unanswerable. Greece has paid a high price to stay in the euro. It has borne humiliation, the terror of the troika, the pain of unemployment, the misery of GDP decline. Now it is being crushed, squeezed, blackmailed, threatened. A proud nation, facing ejection to the dustheap, the dustbin of history.

Perhaps it should never have joined the euro. Certainly the reasoning for membership was faulty. Many bear blame, not just the Greeks. But, now, it will never leave. It will be the last man standing. Others may have their contingency plans; Greece is making no preparations for anything dramatic. All the others may depart. And the Greeks, defiant, will slam the doors behind them. 

Greece will get concessions from the Eurogroup, not today, but sometime in the near future. It will make concessions too. What looks conciliatory in Brussels will be sold as a compromise in Berlin and a conquest in Athens. Varoufakis must return in triumph. Once again, the Greeks are turning the tables.

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