Yannis Varoufakis in the Greek Parliament, July 2015. Photo: Panayotis Tzamaros/FOS Photos

Getting Schooled By Yanis Varoufakis At The DiEM25 Meeting In London

On Brexit, the future of Europe and DiEM25’s vision

As soon as I arrived at Portcullis House, I saw a queue twisting around the block. I took my place and asked the people in front of me if they were here for the DiEM25-Varoufakis event. In a quintessentially British accent, they informed me they were there for a drinking function.

Portcullis House, January 29th, 2018

When I turned the corner, I saw Yannis Varoufakis waiting in the queue, chatting to some people. Venues like that don’t care about status when it comes to security. I went up to him and introduced myself. “Hi! I’m Eliza Gkritsi from AthensLive!” I said with a trembling smile. I was quite starstruck. My head was bursting with questions I wanted to ask him, but his composed demeanour and spirited stare were pretty scary.

Bracing my fears, I asked him about the recent positive economic indicators for the Greek economy. He proceeded to school me on the inherent faults in statistics, how they can be meddled with to serve any purpose and how Greece is nothing but a debt colony. I was smiling in agreement. I share his frustration. I almost failed my first statistics course because it felt like bartering trying to be mathematics.

I am more optimistic than him as to the future of the Greek people, irrespective of the current government. I wanted to play the devil’s advocate, which means I have to be quick in your responses and prepare to be disliked. Usually I’m quite good at this, I debated for many years. Hell, one time I walked up to Anna Wintour and asked to take a picture of her after she had told the entire audience she hates that.

If Dijsselbloem is charming, Varoufakis is a machine gun. His analysis on his positions is impressively well-informed, critical and layered. His style is abrasive and his presence is commanding. He managed to school Chomsky in live debate, was I going to be the exception? You guessed it, I wasn’t. I was lost for words most of the time.

He asked me what I was doing in London, and how AthensLive was doing. We had almost reached the end of the queue, so I told him I would return to my place in the back. “You’re already here,” he replied.

We then went separately through security. The inside of the building was something else. There were plenty of armed police officers, and a glass-covered atrium with trees. The ceilings were high, the walls panelled in what appeared to be chestnut.

I walked into the room and felt a sting of disappointment. In a left-wing meeting in London, the people my age were wearing suits and there was only one non-Caucasian person. I grabbed a cup of coffee, served by an African-American man in a tuxedo, and grabbed a seat.

Τhe meeting started with an introduction by OpenDemocracy Editor Rosemary Blechler followed by some opening remarks by Varoufakis. After about ten minutes, the floor was open to questions. A lot was said, and the audience was a mix of professors, leaders of grass-roots politicians, professionals and students. They had clearly put a lot of thought in the discussion. Here is a summary of Varoufakis’s positions.


Brexit

  • There is no point arguing Brexit, “Remainers have to swallow it.” There will be no second referendum, if there was it would “divide the country and toxify politics.”
  • “DiEM25 fought the corner of Remain, against Farage and the establishment.” The latter had “appalling arguments” and “every word they said reinforced Brexit.”
  • At this point, power has been handed over to the Brexiteers. “Sovereignty is dead in the House of Commons. There is little discussion as to the kind of Brexit implemented. EU laws will be transcribed to the British code without a question.”
  • The Great Repeal bill, which will determine how the vacuum of laws left behind as EU legislation is repealed, includes a Henry VIII power. This means that the government will be able to correct statutes without full Parliamentary scrutiny.
  • The Tories have an “astonishing capacity to stick together. They will not overthrow May before Brexit takes place.” Unfortunately, “she has the least idea about what Brexit is going to look like.”
  • Even if Corbyn was elected, “He wouldn’t start a process of annulling Article 54 before May 2019. I [Varoufakis] wouldn’t recommend it.”
  • “We must fight to preserve what must be preserved. The Norway solution is the second best solution. The City of London would agree at once.”
  • What this entails is maintaining access to the single market as part of the European Free Trade Association, like Norway and Switzerland. This would curtail the danger of Britain losing its economic edge, much of which is based on companies and banks dealing with the EU market.
  • A problem that was not mentioned, is that EFTA rules are refereed by the European Court of Justice. If British trade continues to fall under its jurisdiction, it would still follow EU laws.
  • “There is a radical proposition, which we call Norway+. This means that Britain will take finance, labour and the environment on. Saying, “We will accept the single markets on, but reinforce regulations. Equity requirements for banks are too low. Brussels wants to keep the rules, they don’t mind going overboard.”
  • The final solution is Norway++. “The British Constitution is in dire need of refurbishment. Tony Blair’s devolution was half-hearted. We need to consider the English backlash, why the petty bourgeoisie, the Scots, feel discarded, in order to start a discussion.”
  • Hopefully, one of these solutions will help Britain heal its wounds. Maybe, down the line, it will want to join the EU in the sandbox again. “We need to inspire people using a positive narrative and progressive ideas, not focusing on economic harm.”

European Union

  • The EU is a democratic vacuum. No institution is a Parliament if it doesn’t have the right to initiate legislation. The EU Parliament is a fig-leaf for democracy,” it serves to provide legitimacy to the undemocratic EU Commission that makes the rules.
  • The creation of a European demos is foremost. We need to stop considering ourselves expats [when we move around Europe]. The state does not exist until the initial political praxis. It is a construct, an artefact.” We can only create it by acting like it on an institutional and individual level, it will not rise on its own.
  • This is the attitude at DiEM25. “For the Italian referendum, the Italian members of the movement were prominent in the discussion. But we all voted [on the resolution], showing complete disregard of national and ethnic divisions.”
  • At the same time “Local government is the fabric of our movement. It is a tradition in the UK, which we would like to see revived.” The logic goes, that much of the problems and dissatisfaction in the EU are caused by the Commission’s divorce from the people. They have little regard for or contact with them. This needs to be institutionally and legally amended. “If you read the Federalist Papers, it is clear that Congress was made to give hoi polloi the idea of being consulted.” DiEM25 sees giving back power to local governments as a necessary part for the solution of this problem.
  • “The disintegrationists versus the establishment is a fake binary. Macron and Le Pen are accomplices in a feedback loop. The problem with disintegrationists is that they are coherent.” They say ‘we want our country back.’ “It’s wrong, and intellectually dishonest since it is unclear who is the ‘we.’ Progressives need a coherent story too.”
  • “Freedom of movement is a major humanist victory that we have fought hard for. We can’t fall back on the idea that national sovereignty is defined by borders. We must preserve freedom of movement conditioned on living wages.”

The validity of the dominant economics models has come under serious scrutiny after the 2008 crisis. Neoclassicism and Monetarism failed to predict and respond to the crises. Monetarism troubled the very foundations of the EU, some would argue. The persistence of these models and ensuing policies is a political phenomenon. It is refreshing to see Varoufakis preach this to such a large audience. He is well-suited to his current role of a travelling intellectual inspiring political change.

The EU is the biggest project of political integration. The UK spearheaded it. The fact that it is about to give up says a lot about how the project is doing. It is crucial that we understand the dynamics that led to Brexit, and DiEM25 does a good job.

How they will institutionalise their critique of the status quo is another matter. As the party launches in Greece, its members have more than fundraising to do.

The difficulty is staying in touch with commonplace, everyday reality. The Commission was divorced with it from the onset, but it is a trap that heavyweight intellectuals often fall for. At the end of the meeting, a South African woman in the room pointed out that she saw a “class distinction” in the room. She asked how they planned to inspire a wide base of citizens, if they weren’t part of it. There was no answer to this question.


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