Column: In defence of Varoufakis

By: |
August 5, 2015 12:30 AM

The essence of the former Greek finance minister’s agenda was—and remains—largely correct

From blaming him for the renewed collapse of the Greek economy to accusing him of illegally plotting Greece’s exit from the eurozone, it has become fashionable to disparage Yanis Varoufakis, the country’s former finance minister. While I have never met or spoken to him, I believe that he is getting a bad rap (and increasingly so). In the process, attention is being diverted away from the issues that are central to Greece’s ability to recover and prosper—whether it stays in the eurozone or decides to leave.

That is why it is important to take note of the ideas that Varoufakis continues to espouse. Greeks and others may fault him for pursuing his agenda with too little politesse while in office. But the essence of that agenda was—and remains—largely correct.

Following an impressive election victory by his Syriza party in January, Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, appointed Varoufakis to lead the delicate negotiations with the country’s creditors. His mandate was to recast the relationship in two important ways: render its terms more amenable to economic growth and job creation; and restore balance and dignity to the treatment of Greece by its European partners and the International Monetary Fund.

These objectives reflected Greece’s frustrating and disappointing experience under two previous bailout packages administered by “the institutions” (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF). In pursuing them, Varoufakis felt empowered by the scale of Syriza’s electoral win and compelled by economic logic to press three issues that many economists believe must be addressed if sustained growth is to be restored: less and more intelligent austerity; structural reforms that better meet social objectives; and debt reduction.

These issues remain as relevant today, with Varoufakis out of government, as they were when he was tirelessly advocating for them during visits to European capitals and in tense late-night negotiations in Brussels. Indeed, many observers view the agreement on a third bailout program that Greece reached with its creditors—barely a week after Varoufakis resigned—as simply more of the same. At best, the deal will bring a respite—one that is likely to prove both short and shallow.

In part, the criticism of Varoufakis reflects less the substance of his proposals than the manner in which he approached his interlocutors. Eschewing the traditional duality of frank private discussions and restrained public commentary, he aggressively advocated his case openly and bluntly, and did so in an increasingly personal manner.

Whether deemed naive or belligerent, this approach undeniably upset and angered European politicians. Rather than modifying a policy framework that had failed for five years to deliver on its stated objectives, they dug in their heels, eventually resorting to the economic equivalent of gunboat diplomacy. And they evidently also made it clear to Varoufakis’s boss, Tsipras, that the future of negotiations depended on him casting aside his unconventional minister—which he did, first by assigning someone else to lead the negotiations and then by appointing a new finance minister altogether.

Now that he is out of office, Varoufakis is being blamed for much more than failing to adapt his approach to political reality. Some hold him responsible for the renewed collapse of the Greek economy, the unprecedented shuttering of the banking system, and the imposition of stifling capital controls. Others are calling for criminal investigations, characterising the work he led on a Plan B (whereby Greece would introduce a new payments system either in parallel or instead of the euro) as tantamount to treason.

But, love him or hate him (and, it seems, very few people who have encountered him feel indifferent), Varoufakis was never the arbiter of Greece’s fate. Yes, he should have adopted a more conciliatory style and shown greater appreciation for the norms of European negotiations; and, yes, he overestimated Greece’s bargaining power, wrongly assuming that pressing the threat of Grexit would compel his European partners to reconsider their long-entrenched positions. But, relative to the macro situation, these are minor issues.

Varoufakis had no control over the economic mess that Syriza inherited when it came to power, including an unemployment rate hovering around 25% and youth joblessness that had been running at more than 50% for a considerable period. He could not influence in any meaningful manner the national narratives that had sunk deep roots in other European countries and thus undermined those countries’ ability to adapt. He could not counter the view among some of the region’s politicians that success for Syriza would embolden and strengthen other non-traditional parties around Europe.

It also would have been irresponsible for Varoufakis not to work behind closed doors on a Plan B. After all, Greece’s eurozone destiny largely was—and remains—in the hands of others (particularly Germany, the ECB, and the IMF). And it is yet to be established whether Varoufakis broke any laws in the way he and his colleagues worked on their contingency plan.

When push came to shove, Varoufakis faced the difficult choice of going along with more of the same, despite knowing that it would fail, or trying to pivot to a new approach. He bravely opted for the latter. While his brash style undermined outcomes, it would be a real tragedy to lose sight of his arguments (which have been made by many others as well).

If Greece is to have any realistic chance of long-term economic recovery and meeting its citizens’ legitimate aspirations, policymakers must recast the country’s austerity program, couple pro-growth reforms with greater social justice, and secure additional debt relief. And if Greece is to remain in the eurozone (still a big if, even after the latest agreement), it must not only earn its peers’ respect; it must be treated with greater respect by them as well.

El-Erian, chief economic adviser at Allianz and a member of its International Executive Committee, is chairman of US president Barack Obama’s Global Development Council and the author, most recently, of When Markets Collide

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