Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis thinks the EU is ‘absolutely awful’ – but Jeremy Corbyn’s ally hopes to reform it through a new mass movement. Chris Burn reports.
The battle over Brexit in 2016 forged many temporary and unexpected political alliances on both sides of the campaign. But by his own admission, perhaps one of Remain’s most unlikely supporters was former Greek finance minister and self-described Marxist Yanis Varoufakis.
“Think of the tragedy of being on the same side as David Cameron,” he tells an audience in Sheffield with a smile. “But that is the problem with binary choices – if you went against him, you would have been with Nigel Farage.”
Varoufakis seemingly had more reason than most to wish for Leave to prevail – his own frustrated attempts to renegotiate Greece’s relationship with the European Union the year before eventually led to a bitterly-contested referendum in his own country and his resignation following pressure from other European leaders. At one stage, he even went as far as accusing Greece’s creditors in Brussels of “terrorism” in the demands they were making of his nation in exchange for providing bailouts to the financially-stricken country.
While he still believes the EU is run with a combination of “authoritarianism and incompetence”, Varoufakis believes Brexit will be a costly mistake for the UK. But he is now throwing his considerable energy into attempts to reform the EU through a relatively new political group called the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 – or DiEM25 for short.
He says the organisation, founded in early 2016 and planning to stand candidates in next year’s European Parliament elections, now has more than 100,000 members across the continent who have joined the so-called progressive alliance in an attempt to “repair” what he sees as the ‘disintegrating’ EU.
Varoufakis believes there is no realistic prospect of a second referendum in the UK but says DiEM25 is campaigning here with around 7,000 people signed up so far to help make the case for how a post-Brexit Britain can better work with its European neighbours.
The interest in his ideas was clear as he spoke in front of hundreds of people at the Sheffield Festival of Debate on Wednesday night.
The event was so popular that not only did the 440-seat venue at Sheffield Hallam University sell out, organisers arranged a live video stream to another university lecture theatre for others to watch.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post ahead of the event, the academic and economist provides a detailed explanation as to why he campaigned for a ‘radical Remain’ alongside Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“Imagine we go in HG Wells’s Time Machine and went back to the 19th Century and spoke to the first trade unionists who organised the working class in this country against an iron-clad establishment that beat them up, that imprisoned them, that tried to eliminate them. If you asked ‘do you want to see the disintegration of the British state’, the very state they were fighting against, the answer would have been ‘no’.
“That was my attitude towards the European Union. If I’m cross with the European Union, it is not because I’m against the idea of a European Union. It is because this European Union is so absolutely awful, authoritarian as well as incompetent. But the solution is not necessarily to disintegrate.
“Look, I’m a Bennite. I only met the man once but I don’t ever recall Tony Benn saying something I disagreed with. As a young man, I campaigned in Greece against entry to the European Economic Community and the Eurozone. But it is one thing to say we shouldn’t come in, another to say we should get out. Getting out does not return to you to where you would have been had you not entered. After 40 years, the Hotel California conundrum holds – you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.
“This country is going to be caught up in a decade-long list of shenanigans – effectively you are going to be more enmeshed with Brussels than ever before.
“These are the reasons I fought against Brexit. But it is time to move on – Brexit won, we are democrats and we accept it. We have to find out what we can do to make the circumstances facing the people in this country as good as possible.”
But he says while the result should be accepted, he believes Britain is heading for a “very bad Brexit deal” in which little will change – apart from a loss of British influence on EU affairs.
He says issues like ensuring British and EU trading standards remain compatible and the existence of organisations like the European Atomic Energy Committee, which oversees a specialist market for nuclear power across the continent, means it is not possible for the UK to have a clean break with Brussels.
“A hard Brexit, even Theresa May realises now, simply can’t be done. There is so much at stake,” he said. “You will end up with the worst of all worlds.”
Despite his fears for the future of Europe – in particular what he sees as the growing prospect of a repeat of the global financial crisis of 2008 – he believes there is a way forward.
One of the big ideas being promoted by DiEM25 is that of a European ‘New Deal’, inspired by the US-funded Marshall Plan which helped rebuild Europe after World War II. He suggests a £600bn bond issue, backed up by the European Investment Bank, could help pay for massive investment in green technologies which would create jobs and prepare the continent for the future.
But he admits: “The probability of this happening is zero unless we create a democratic movement that forces the powers that be to do it. But that is what politics is about, that is why we are here.
“Now is the time to turn the page and start healing the rift between Remainers and Leavers. This is yet another division that we do not need at a time when both Britain and Europe have some very, very serious social and economic issues facing us.”
In his public speech, Varoufakis repeatedly stresses how important he believes the election of Jeremy Corbyn is vital to helping the country deal better with its European neighbours in the post-Brexit world – and says that despite his media portrayal, he considers the Labour leader’s policies to be “extremely moderate”. “The Labour party manifesto could have been the Tory party manifesto of 1971,” he claims.
While his analysis and solutions won’t win universal approval, Varoufakis has an impassioned belief in the need to make his case – warning that he fears a return to the 1930s of Hitler and Mussolini as faith in the EU wanes while nationalism grows.
“We have a moral duty, just like our grandfathers and grandmothers in the 1930s had a moral duty to try and stop the fall into the abyss.
“Let’s not neglect the duty that we have.”
Government 'making significant progress' on trade deal
The Government has said it is making “significant progress” in its Brexit talks with the European Union.
Responding to Mr Varoufakis’s comments, a spokeswoman for the Department for Exiting the European Union said: “We are delivering on the referendum result by taking back control of our money, our borders and our laws.
“We are confident we can achieve the broadest and deepest possible future partnership with the EU – covering more sectors and co-operating more fully than any Free Trade Agreement anywhere in the world today.
“We have already made significant progress in our ongoing negotiations which has allowed us to begin talks this week on our future trading partnership with the EU.”