Varouf Visits the US, Fools No One
Yanis Varoufakis’ first visit to the US as Greece’s finance minister was another trip met with much fanfare yet predictably resulting in no tangible progress for unlocking the funds that would spare Greece a default.
Earlier, Varoufakis met with IMF head Christine Lagarde and was warned that as a developed country, Greece would not be able to delay its payments due to the IMF. Varoufakis also met with President Obama for 12 whole minutes in which he asked that Mr. Obama apply pressure to European creditors to find a viable solution, even though it his government that has repeatedly asked for conditions that are unacceptable to voters in EU creditor countries, stalling the negotiations process.
Varoufakis also met with Jack Lew, the US Secretary of the Treasury who told him to cut down on the trips and go through “every line” in the Greek budget in order to create a plan that will satisfy the Eurogroup. Lew put it very nicely when he said that the Greek crisis “isn’t resolved by speeches; it isn’t resolved by rhetoric. It’s resolved by the hard technical work.”
However, speeches and rhetoric seem to be the only two tricks Varoufakis has up his sleeve. Two tricks that are fast becoming tired and predictable, if not shocking: sitting in the audience of his talk at Brookings, which was moderated by Kemal Dervis and David Wessler, I despaired at the gaping holes and the ambiguity that characterized most of his points. His question-answer session, instead of clarifying what Syriza is doing to propose and implement reforms, was vague. His 20-minute opening speech was a sad repetition of what Varoufakis and the rest of the SYRIZA party have been preaching since they were elected. Some highlights included SYRIZA’s duty to the Greek people to “challenge the current mandate,” the promise that they are “keener than anyone to reach an agreement,” and will “compromise, and compromise, and compromise, but… will not end up being compromised” during negotiations. In other words, soundbytes that do not reflect the reality of Syriza’s actions, or lack thereof.
In attending the event, I expected to have a few points addressed: first, when and how Varoufakis expects a deal to be reached with the Eurogroup, and second, what he sees for Greece’s future in the Eurozone. Although his talk lasted over an hour, these important topics were only superficially addressed, with optimistic yet unsupported arguments that a deal will be reached (eventually), and that he, Varoufakis, “refuses to think about a Grexit” scenario. When Mr. Dervis said that the previous speaker, German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who had visited Brookings earlier that day, ruled out a Grexit, Varoufakis seemed pleasantly surprised, an obvious display of the communication gap between the two during this crucial negotiating period.
The question-answer session during the last 15 minutes of the session featured more repetition, more ambiguity. One woman asked Varoufakis to name specific proposals to increase development that have been implemented/introduced since SYRIZA was elected, and after failing to name even one, he ended with a statement about how Greece’s “sovereignty is being circumscribed by the negotiations” and that this is “slowing us down.” He then moved on to answer another question, saying that although it would be “a fine ambition” to fire inefficient government employees, and replace them with the unemployed youth, it would not make much of an impact as “fewer state enterprises exist.” He used the examples of the former government telephone company, OTE, and the port authority, that have now been privatized and semi-privatized respectively. Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the vast Greek public sector can only laugh at Varoufakis’ pathetic answer.
Meanwhile, as Varoufakis traipsed around the US, his Spanish counterpart, finance minister Louis de Guindos blasted him for “wasting precious time over the last three or four weeks” and warned that “time is running out.” At this stage, it has become embarrassing that Varoufakis has visited every power-playing country in the global economy and has nothing to show for it except photo-ops and bon mots. His slick speeches and “informed rhetoric” are now falling on deaf ears, with the exception of his desperate constituents back at home who are hoping and waiting for a miracle.