Yanis Varoufakis’s Account of the Greek Crisis: a Self-Condemnation — Part Seven: The First Capitulation
First published at CADTM. Translated by Snake Arbusto, Vicki Briault Manus and Christine Pagnoulle.
I signed the formal letter of request and, with revulsion in my stomach, had it sent to the creditors. It was a thing of darkness. And I had acknowledged it as mine. — Yanis Varoufakis 1
This series of articles on Yanis Varoufakis’s book, Adults in The Room: My Battle With Europe’s Deep Establishment is a guide for left-leaning readers who are not happy with the dominant narrative meted out by the mainstream media and the Troika-controlled governments. These readers are also dissatisfied with the former Finance Minister’s version. 2 As a counterpoint to Varoufakis’s story, I have highlighted events that he is silent about and I have expressed different views on what he should have done and what he did instead. My story runs parallel, and not opposite, to his.
It is crucial to thoroughly analyze the policy implemented by the Varoufakis-Tsipras government because, for the first time in the twenty-first century, a radical left-wing government was elected in Europe. If we want to avoid another disaster, it is absolutely vital to identify the flaws and understand what went wrong.
This critique of the Greek government’s policy in 2015 is not primarily meant to point out the respective responsibilities of Tsipras or Varoufakis as individuals. It is imperative to analyze the politico-economic orientation that was followed, so that we can ascertain the causes of failure, understand what could have been tried instead, and learn what a radical left-wing government can do in a country in the periphery of the Eurozone.
On 20 February 2015, Varoufakis signed a disastrous agreement with the Eurogroup. It stipulated that Greece was committed to repay its creditors along the previously established schedule. This involved paying €7 billion in several instalments by 30 June 2015. Five billion were due to be paid to the IMF even though it was one of the institutions that had enforced calamitous economic policies. The agreement also stated that any proposal for "reforms” and austerity measures in the context of the second MoU implemented since 2012 was to be submitted by Greece to the Eurogroup’s approval. This second MoU was extended by four months by common agreement between the Greek government and the Eurogroup. After signing the agreement in Brussels, Varoufakis went back to Athens, where he was sharply critized by emblematic figures of Greek resistance and struggle.
Athens 21 to 24 February 2015: Varoufakis drained the cup to the dregs
Varoufakis reports contradictory reactions. Jeffrey Sachs congratulates him, while he is severely criticized by Manolis Glezos, a hero of the Resistance and Syriza MEP since February 2015, and the well-known composer Mikis Theodorakis — both leftwing childhood heroes of his, as he puts it (p. 281). In a public communiqué, Manolis Glezos apologized to the Greek people for having encouraged them to vote for Syriza in January 2015.
Varoufakis explains that from 21 February, he got on with writing the reforms that they would propose “as a substitute for the MoU” to be submitted to the Eurogroup on 23 February. It is interesting to note that today, Varoufakis makes no bones about the fact that the idea was to try to amend the current Memorandum; but at the time, Tsipras and he told the population that it was a new agreement and that Greece was now no longer the prisoner of the Memorandum and the Troika, renamed “the institutions.”
Varoufakis writes, “Once it [the text] was submitted on Monday evening, Mario Draghi, Christine Lagarde and Pierre Moscovici would have the following morning in which to review it before the Eurogroup teleconference scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. There would be no quibbling; the three of them would pass judgement on the list of measures in turn, giving it either a green light or a red flag, with ministers having no say.” (p. 281-282). How then could anyone claim, as Varoufakis did in public at the time, that the Troika no longer existed and that Greece was free again? He himself acknowledges that he agreed to submit to Lagarde (IMF), Draghi (ECB) and Moscovici (European Commission) the list of proposals that the Greek government then intended to send officially to the Eurogroup.
Varoufakis wrote a piece on the answers to the humanitarian crisis, meaning to insert it in the newly configured Second Memorandum (MoU). The text is not mentioned in the press release of 20 February 2015, as the Troika refused to talk about any humanitarian crisis in Greece and rejected Varoufakis’s proposals two days later. Next he concentrated on removing elements breaching human rights from the Memorandum as it stood. “In exchange, I left a large number of the MoU’s prior actions’ stand. Some were ugly, some bad, a few good. But that’s what the spirit of compromise dictated.” (p. 283)
Varoufakis had asked George Chouliarakis, the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors and Vice Prime Minister Dragasakis’s right-hand man, to remain in Brussels after 20 February, entrusting him with the task of collaborating with the European Commission to prepare the work to be submitted to the Troika by 23 February.
On Sunday 22 February, Chouliarakis was back in Athens and Varoufakis asked him whether the text he had sent to Brussels the night before had met with the approval of Declan Costello, the European Commission’s mission chief in the Troika’s Greek bailout programme since May 2014, who had been charged with overseeing the implementation of the 20 February agreement.
Chouliarakis replied that Costello’s reaction to Varoufakis draft had been positive, but that it needed to be reformulated in line with the Troika’s style. Varoufakis agreed and a few hours later, Chouliarakis came back with the reworked document. Varoufakis was not at all happy with the text. He writes: “Its language was clearly that of the Troika’s MoU, but the insertions that were supposed to reflect my earlier draft were also either absent or unacceptably watered down.” (p. 283) Together they modified the document and sent it to Costello for approval on the Sunday at 9 pm.
Costello refused two specific elements of their text. He rejected their idea of a moratorium on evictions of families unable to pay their mortgage. Varoufakis agreed to cut the “moratorium." Costello also opposed the creation of a public development bank that Varoufakis wanted to announce. “It was another concession that I agreed to, making a mental note to place it at the top of my priorities from April onwards.” (p. 285)
On the morning of Monday 23 February, Varoufakis consulted the war cabinet and Lafazanis, the Minister of Reconstruction. “The strongest opposition came from colleagues belonging or close to the Left Platform. From their perspective, our negotiations with the creditors were fundamentally ill-advised and the couching of my list in Troika-speak bordered on the treacherous.” (p. 285)
Finally, after further email consultation of the Troika representatives and having waited for their green light, it was a few minutes after the midnight deadline that Varoufakis officially sent his list to the Eurogroup as agreed. 2
The following morning, Tuesday 24 February, the media put it out that the delay was proof of Varoufakis’s incompetence. Varoufakis comments: “It was a charge I could not challenge without revealing that I had been negotiating secretly with Greece’s creditors before formally submitting the list.” (p. 286)
There was worse to come: a few hours later, the Greek press revealed the contents of the document Varoufakis had sent the Eurogroup, announcing that it had been redacted by Declan Costello of the European Commission, which in the main was true. Varoufakis acknowledges: “Hearing this I grabbed my laptop, opened the document containing my reform list, clicked on ‘File’ and then on ‘Properties’ to see that next to ‘Author’ it read ‘Costello Declan (ECFIN) [Economic and Financial Affairs]’ and just below under ‘Company,' two words that completed my humiliation, ‘European Commission.'” (p. 287). 4
Varoufakis further spins his tale and tells us that once he had swallowed his humiliation, he duly attended the Cabinet meeting. He claims that after two hours of discussion, the ministers gave him the go-ahead to pursue negotiations on the basis of the text he had sent to the Eurogroup the night before. Varoufakis provides no details of the discussion at this meeting, nor of the people who were present.
Fortunately there are other sources available to glean a correct idea of the discussions which took place in this special sitting of a restricted cabinet. There follows an excerpt of an article by a well-informed journalist from the Greek daily, Kathimerini: “Internal friction between government leaders was clear to see at yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, where the Minister of Productive Reconstruction, Environment and Energy, Panagiotis Lafazanis, expressed strong reserves about privatizations that concerned his own ministry but also about the government’s commitment to harmonizing the electricity and natural gas markets with EU market norms and legislation. Mrs Nadia Valavani 5 raised the question of the rapid settlement of debt arrears. However murmurs of disapproval could be heard from other ministers, displeased that they had not seen the text in its final form before it had been sent.” 6
Next Varoufakis participates in the Eurogroup meeting by teleconference. The representative of the Commission declared up front that the list of measures that Varoufakis had sent “does not substitute the MoU, which constitutes the official legal basis for the programme.” (p.288) Mario Draghi said the same thing, as did Christine Lagarde.
Varoufakis claims that at that point, he should have ended negotiations and incited Tsipras to implement the unilateral measures that he, Varoufakis, had proposed to Tsipras, Papas, and Dragasakis, starting with a haircut for Greek bonds held by the ECB and setting up a parallel payments system. 7
“Instead, disastrously, I opted for the soft alternative” (p. 290); and to the Eurogroup he declared by telephone, “We shall insist… that the review be completed on the understanding that this government’s list of reforms is the starting-point.” (p. 291)
Varoufakis barely mentions the important debate within Syriza’s parliamentary group
On the evening of 25 February and until late into the night, Syriza’s parliamentary group held a crisis meeting. In his book, Varoufakis mentions it once, very vaguely, in a single line and with no date given: “The grumblings of some Syriza MPs notwithstanding, the mood across the land was ebullient.” (p. 305). 8 An endnote provides a little more information: “At a specially convened tumultuous parliamentary party meeting I spent a good hour on the podium explaining why the extension had been necessary, taking personal responsibility for the whole affair, while Alexis, Pappas and Dragasakis looked on.” (Note 1, p. 526)
In fact at the meeting of Syriza MPs, about a third were opposed to the 20 February agreement. Among these were the President of the Hellenic Parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou, and all the ministers and deputy ministers of the Left Platform (P. Lafazanis, N. Chountis, D. Stratoulis, C. Ysichos) as well as Nadia Valavani, Deputy Minister of Finance, and Thodoris Dritsas, Alternate Minister for Shipping and the Aegean. 9
It is obvious that Varoufakis underestimated the significant opposition that was expressed very early on within Syriza’s parliamentary group and among government members, not to mention Syriza’s Central Committee. Later, when a vote was held at the meeting of the Central Committee on 28 February and 1 March 2015, 41% of Central Committee members opposed the agreement of 20 February. From Varoufakis’s account and other sources it is clear that the parliamentary group and government ministers who were not in the war cabinet were not kept fully informed about the negotiations. In fact what transpired was that neither the Cabinet, nor the MPs, nor Syriza officials had been made aware of the decisions made ahead of the agreement. At best, Tsipras would give them a biased briefing afterwards. 9
On 27 February Varoufakis swore allegiance to the European Commission, the IMF and the ECB
After reporting the 24 February Eurogroup meeting during which he presented measures to be implemented in the context of the Memorandum rather than taking unilateral measures, Varoufakis adds: “The problem with errors is that, like crimes, they beget new ones. My failure to pull the plug on the 24 February Eurogroup teleconference was to be compounded with an even greater one a few days later.” (p. 292)
On 25 February, through the office of the President of the Eurogroup, Varoufakis was summoned by the European Commission, the IMF, and the ECB to show allegiance. The Troika wanted the Greek Government to send an official letter to confirm the agreement Varoufakis had given the day before at the Eurogroup conference. After much hesitation, he agreed to sign the template letter that the Troika had prepared. “Accepting the creditors’ words in full and without any emendation in a request of this nature was pure poison: it would suggest that we had not wrung the extension from them on our terms, but that the troika had chosen to impose it on theirs.” (p. 296) Varoufakis was aware of the extreme gravity of the decision to be made. Signing the template letter meant that the current memorandum was extended along terms dictated by the Troika.
Varoufakis acknowledges that the letter was so outrageous that Tsipras considered it unthinkable to sign it and inform parliament. Varoufakis asked him, “Are you sure you cannot go to parliament, tell it as it is, secure a vote that authorizes me to sign the letter and turn the page? He looked tired and depressed as he turned to Sagias, who, looking the same, advised him against it.” (p. 298)
Varoufakis then suggested he should do the dirty work: “In that case, Alexi, . . . I shall take sole responsibility. I’ll sign the bloody letter without parliamentary approval, send it to the creditors and turn the page.” (p. 287)
Varoufakis reports that in the early hours of 27 February, “I signed the formal letter of request and, with revulsion in my stomach, had it sent to the creditors. It was a thing of darkness. And I had acknowledged it as mine.” (p. 300)
On 27 February, Varoufakis retains Chouliarakis in his post
According to Varoufakis, on 26 February, following Chouliarakis’s double game (not only had he concocted a document with Declan Costello, of the European Commission, but he had also failed to forward Varoufakis an important message from the Eurogroup on 21 February), Tsipras advised him to get rid of such an unreliable collaborator. Varoufakis refused. On the following day, Tsipras changed his mind and accepted that Chouliarakis should stay.
Let us briefly go back to Varourafkis’s account.
Varoufakis writes that in the late morning of 27 February 2015, he went to the Maximos Mansion to tell Tsipras what he intended to do about Chouliarakis, “The idea was to promote him from chair of the Council of Economic Advisers to general secretary for fiscal policy, a position of higher rank in the ministry but one in which he could do relatively little damage.” (p. 301) Though unhappy about the proposal, Tsipras agreed, and Varoufakis told Chouliarakis, who refused point blank and brought in blackmail: “It is your decision, Yanis. Just know that if you decide to take the Council of Economic Advisers away from me, I shall not accept the general secretariat for fiscal policy, nor any other position in the government. I shall instead go to the Bank of Greece, where Stournaras has a position ready for me.” (p. 302)
Varoufakis comments: “not in my worst nightmare had I expected the reply he gave me. . . . The mask was off. The cynicism was extraordinary. He had just told me, quite brazenly, that he was ready to work directly for the troika rather than sever his privileged links with the troika’s functionaries in my ministry. Not only this, he had openly admitted that he was already in cahoots with the troika’s primary ally, the governor of the Greek Central Bank, who had begun the bank run in the run-up to our election as part of their bid to keep us from office. I was aghast.” (p. 302) Varoufakis then took Chouliarakis’s response back to Tsipras, who, most astonishingly, decided to let things be.
Varoufakis’s comment about those extremely serious events clearly points to his inconsistency. He blames himself for not “pulling the plug” on the Eurogroup during the 24 February teleconference while claiming that this mistake was based on his conviction that Tsipras would be in a position to radically dismiss the Troika at some later point. Next he states that he lost this illusion on 27 February: “had I had that glimpse into the abyss before I entered the Eurogroup teleconference of 24 February, I would have most definitely pulled the plug on the Troika there and then. The only reason I had not done so was my conviction that Alexis could be counted on to trigger the rupture at a later, commonly agreed, stage if need be. That conviction evaporated when he apologized for Chouliarakis’s outrageous threat to work for the enemy.” (p. 304) He adds, “I should have confronted Alexis’s backtracking — in public if necessary.” (p. 304)
But he did nothing of the sort. As we shall see, Varoufakis accepted setback after setback until 6 July 2015, and never made public either his disagreements or his alternative proposals.
My testimony on the events of January-February 2015 and the period before
As mentioned in Part 3 of this series, I was personally involved in supporting the launch of the initiative for a citizens’ audit of Greek debt at the end of 2010. 10 I went to Athens eight times between 2011 and 2014 in order to take part in events on the issue of the Greek debt and on the need to reject the policies imposed by the Troika. The point was also to develop international solidarity with the Greek people’s resistance. I studied the issue of Greek indebtedness in depth and this resulted in a number of articles and interviews.
During my missions in Greece, I met Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s main leader, and other leading figures of Syriza’s left-wing, particularly Costas Ysichos, who became Alternate Minister of National Defence in January 2015, and Antonis Ntavanelos, who led the DEA branch within Syriza and is now a member of Popular Unity. I had the opportunity to meet and debate and closely collaborate with comrades from various member organizations in the extra-parliamentary radical left coalition Antarsya, particularly Leonidas Vatikiotis from NAR and Spyros Marchetos. I had known some of them since the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the twenty-first century when a strong Greek delegation had participated in mobilizations against the G8 summit in Genoa in July 2001. I’d kept in touch regularly with Greek comrades through networks such as the European Social Forum, where Greek participation was significant between 2002 and 2006, 11 or the European Marches against Unemployment.
Several Syriza leaders, such as Tsipras, Tsakalotos, or Valavani, and Antarsya leaders, such as Yanis Felikis and Tassos Anastassiadis, and also leaders of the SEK, an organization related to the British SWP, were extremely active in European networks, as indeed was Giorgos Mitralias, who had participated in the launching of Syriza and who was active in the network for European Marches, particularly. From 2011 on, the CADTM also closely collaborated with Sofia Sakorafa, a Syriza MP, formerly a Pasok MP, and with the jurist George Katrougalos, a former member of the Greek communist party (KKE), who was to become alternate minister in the Tsipras government and is now Alternate Minister for Foreign Affairs. Since late 2010 I have been in regular contact with Costas Lapavitsas, who became a Syriza MP in January 2015. I was also in regular contact with Yanis Tolios a close collaborator of Panagiotis Lafazanis. Tolios was active in the audit of the Greek debt. In October 2012 I also had a long interview with Manolis Glézos. I had admired his unflinching rebellious stance ever since he wrenched the Nazi flag from the Acropolis on 30 May 1941. I also collaborated from time to time with the Nikos Poulantzas Institute, which is close to the majority tendency within Syriza and deeply Euro-communist. When meeting Tsipras in October 2012, I had come upon John Millios, who was one of the people in charge of economic matters within Syriza until the end of 2014. I knew a dozen young people aged between 20 and 30 in 2011–2015 who had mobilized in favour of auditing the debt. Lastly, I was in touch with Greek trade unionists, most of them members of Syriza or Antarsya.
During contacts before the January 2015 elections I had become very critical of Alexis Tsipras’s attitude. A key moment was a meeting with Tsipras in his office at the Greek parliament in October 2012. From the start of our conversation, which lasted about an hour, I realized that he had given up on the positioning he had defended during the two election campaigns in May and June 2012. As a representative of the CADTM, I suggested that we strengthen the campaign to delegitimize the creditors of the Greek debt and to support a citizens’ audit of the debt so that we could use its findings when Syriza came to power. I realized then that, regarding the country’s public debt, he was retreating from what he had demanded in May and June 2012 in front of the Greek electorate, that’s to say: “The creation of an international debt audit committee combined with suspension of repayment of the debt until the end of the committee’s work." 12
I met Alexis Tsipras for a second small meeting in October 2013, along with the Syriza MP Sofia Sakorafa, who was deeply involved in the citizens’ audit of Greek debt and had collaborated more and more actively with the CADTM, attending an international CADTM meeting in Brazil in October 2011. The conversation with Tsipras in October 2013 lasted just over one hour and strengthened my conviction that he wanted to avoid any confrontation with creditors. He clearly thought, without putting it into words, that the orientation he had himself stood for in May-June 2012 was too radical, as indeed was the CADTM’s position. He considered that it was possible to use “pro-EU” arguments to persuade creditors to grant Greece significant debt relief.
My own analysis of Greece and the Eurozone had changed. From the summer of 2013 I had become convinced that leaving the Eurozone was an option to be considered by countries of the European periphery, notably Greece. 13 But I did not discuss the issue with Tsipras since the point of the meeting was to prepare a large-scale European conference on the debt and on alternatives to neoliberal policies.
By the end of the October 2013 meeting with Tsipras I was firmly convinced that the new orientation Tsipras had adopted would result in failure for the Greek people if radical forces in Greece within and outside Syriza did not mobilize to uphold the demands announced in May-June 2012 and prepare a Plan B to complement Tsipras’s Plan A. And of course it all depended on what would happen in Greece within the social and political Left. The decisive element would be popular pressure.
There was reason for concern when looking at the social and political Left: Syriza’s leaders around Tsipras were bent on avoiding confrontation with the EU establishment or with major Greek capitalists. They were giving up on the demand for a citizen audit of the debt and suspension of payments while it took place. 14 Syriza’s left wing was for a suspension of payments but was not strongly in favour of an audit. The extra-parliamentary radical Left, including Antarsya, was opposed to an audit of the debt, considering that people were already convinced that the whole of the country’s public debt had to be cancelled. A majority of Antarsya members considered that an audit would only give legitimacy to an illegitimate debt. The KKE (Greek communist party) saw partisans of an audit as agents of imperialism. Anarchists had no interest whatsoever in auditing the debt.
During the two European conferences that were held in Brussels and to which Tsipras, Tsakalotos, Millios and myself had been invited in March and in April 2014, I insisted on the need for a Plan B. In October 2014 I also stated in a major newspaper in Athens, Εfimerida ton Syntakton (Journal of Editors), close to Syriza, 15 that Syriza’s proposals would meet with the opposition of the European Union and that a Syriza government had to be ready to take radical and unilateral measures. The box below reproduces an excerpt from the interview.
Tassos Tsakiroglou: Alexis Tsipras has called for an international conference for the abolition of the debt of the Southern European countries that are affected by the crisis, similar to what was done for Germany in 1953, when 22 countries, including Greece, cancelled a large part of the German debt. Is this a realistic possibility today?
This is a legitimate demand. Unlike Nazi Germany, Greece has not caused any conflict on European soil. The Greek people can strongly insist that the Greek debt is illegal or illegitimate and should be cancelled, just as the German debt was in 1953. However, I don’t think that Syriza and other European political forces can convince the European institutions to get together around a table to do the same as was done for Germany in 1953. Although this request is legitimate, and this is why I have supported the Tsipras candidature to the Presidency of the European Commission, it will not be possible to bring the governments of the main European economies and the EU institutions to the table on this agenda.
The experience of the last ten years has shown that unilateral sovereign acts can get results. The creditors that reclaim the payment of an illegitimate debt and impose violent measures that attack fundamental human rights, including economic and social rights, must be refused. I think that Greece has strong arguments for forming a government that would have popular support for working in this direction. Such a popular leftist government could establish a debt audit committee that would include a large popular democratic participation. This audit committee would unilaterally suspend repayments and finally repudiate the part of the debt that it identifies as illegal and/or odious.
In Greece, Syriza is topping all the polls and several of its leaders have declared that any debt negotiation will be done within the Eurozone context and will not be a unilateral decision. What do you have to say about this?
Yes, I know the official Syriza position. Personally, I try to show that another way is possible. It’s clear that most of the Eurozone governments and the ECB will not agree to an important reduction of Greek debt. So, in spite of Syriza’s willingness to negotiate, I think it will be impossible to come to terms with all. This requires a more radical approach — there is no other possibility — just as was done by Iceland after 2008, Ecuador in 2007 – 2009 and Argentina between 2001 and 2005.
Since then, those governments have made a series of mistakes and abandoned their radical positions. This why they are in great difficulty today, as is the case of Argentina, that I have recently visited. The Argentine parliament has passed a law that means Argentina must, from now on, act in a sovereign fashion in the management of its debt. It was agreed to create a Congressional Audit Committee that will sit for three months; we will see whether this does come about.
You have said that reducing public debt is necessary, but not sufficient to bring the EU countries out of the crisis, that other strong measures will be necessary in different sectors. Can you, briefly, tell us more?
First of all, nationalize the banks — I prefer to use the term socialization. I think that the Greek banks, and the banks of other countries, should become public and be put to the service of the population, in a framework of strict regulations imposing the rules and the objectives fixed by the population. Controlling the circulation of capital is also essential, in particularly that made by the big financial institutions. I am not talking about remittances of 1,000 or 2,000 euros, but large sums, which would require authorization by controlling authorities, without which a guilty bank would be sanctioned by heavily dissuasive fines and the revocation of its banking licence. This measure must be seriously applied. It would be a protection for ordinary users who make reasonably-sized international transfers of money. Tax reform is also very important: reduce taxes paid by the majority of the population and greatly increase, on a progressive scale, those imposed on the richest households and international companies, whether national or foreign.
And for Greece?
Syriza made interesting propositions during the 2012 elections. If there is a Syriza government the unjust laws (in particular, those that abolished collective bargaining between labour and employers) that were passed under pressure from the Troika must be repealed. Other necessary measures would include: radical tax reform favouring social justice and redistribution of the country’s wealth; the abolition of the most unfair taxes paid by the poor and increased taxation of the rich; an audit of the debt and the repudiation of the part identified as illegal and/or odious; socialization of the banks and control of the movement of capital."
(The original Greek version of this interview published on 20 October 2014 can be accessed at: http://www.efsyn.gr/?p=245093)
When an early election was called at the end of December 2014 for 25 January 2015, the CADTM published a press release that clearly sized up the threats from the European authorities that loomed over the Greek people:
The CADTM does not have the least doubt about the real intentions of those who have used Greece as a European testing ground for the most extreme neoliberal policies and used the Greeks as guinea pigs for social, political and economic shock therapies. We must be ready for an escalation of their campaign. They cannot allow that Syriza gain victory and be emulated throughout Europe! They will stop at nothing because they are well aware that the result of the Greek elections will be decisive in the social war they are waging against the vast majority of the European population!
It is because the stakes are so high that we can expect the ‘leaders’ of Europe and of Greece to refuse to accept the result of the poll which, for the first time in Greek history, should bring victory to the Greek left. They will certainly try to stifle the left wing government that will be the democratic result, because its eventual success will be interpreted as tremendous encouragement, to the workers and peoples of Europe, to resist. 16
On 2 January 2015, I was contacted by George Caravelis, who introduced himself as an emissary of the Syriza leadership wanting to know what my proposals were concerning Greece’s debt. I immediately contacted the Syriza European MP Nikos Chountis, who confirmed that Caravelis had indeed been asked to get my opinion. We had several discussions and Caravelis said that he was convinced of the need to put a debt audit committee in place as soon as possible after the election and the forming of a Syriza government. Based on our discussions, Caravelis sent me the notes he had sent to Syriza’s leadership via Chountis. I received no response from the Syriza leadership before the election.
Four days before the election on 25 January 2015, I published an opinion in the dailies Le Monde and Le Soir, the leading newspapers in Paris and Brussels. The article was entitled “Pour un véritable audit de la dette grecque” (in English: “What if SYRIZA took the EU at its word and audited Greek debt?").
My article asked what would happen if a Syriza government decided to apply, to the letter, Article 7 of a regulation adopted by the European Union in May 2013 concerning countries subject to a structural adjustment plan. Paragraph 9 of Article 7 makes the following provision: “A Member State subject to a macroeconomic adjustment programme shall carry out a comprehensive audit of its public finances in order, inter alia, to assess the reasons that led to the building up of excessive levels of debt as well as to track any possible irregularity” (Regulation EU 472/2013 of 21 May 2013 “on common provisions for monitoring and assessing draft budgetary plans and ensuring the correction of excessive deficit of the Member States in the euro area”).
The present Greek government, under Antonis Samaras, carefully refrained from applying this regulation. But after an electoral victory, Syriza could take the European Union at its word and constitute a Debt Audit Committee (with citizens’ participation) that would be entrusted with analyzing the process of excessive indebtedness and identifying illegal, illegitimate, and odious debt.
In the remainder of that article, I explained that the debt Greece was expected to repay might well be identified as illegitimate and odious. My article was aimed both at making a modest contribution to convincing public opinion of the illegitimate nature of the debts being claimed from Greece and to show the future Greek authorities that they could use a provision of a European Commission regulation — one we find reprehensible — as a weapon against the Commission.
That opinion was reproduced in Athens by the conservative daily Kathimerini, which asked the question: “What will a Syriza government do?”
During the election campaign, accompanied by Manolis Glezos, a European Parliament member from Syriza, I made a statement in Brussels in support of the Greek people. I also participated in debates, including with Fréderic Lordon and Serge Halimi (Le Monde Diplomatique). 17
Following Syriza’s victory in the 25 January election and the forming of the government on 27 January, I learned that several of my acquaintances had become members of the Syriza-ANEL government.
I went to Athens on 13 February 2015 after having taken part in several conferences in Europe in support of the Greek people and in controversial debates such as the one broadcast on France 2 television on 30 January 2015, during which I was involved in some very heated exchanges with personalities from the Right, including journalist Arnaud Leparmentier of the daily Le Monde.
On 13 February I had a meeting with Georgios Katrougalos, with whom the CADTM had been collaborating from 2011, when he became involved as a jurist in the fight for suspension of payments and an audit of Greece’s debt. Katrougalos, after being elected European MP representing Syriza in May 2014, had become Alternate Minister of the Interior and Administrative Reconstruction. I told him that I hoped he would help with the creation of an audit committee and the adoption of a firm attitude on the issue of non-payment of the debt. He answered that he would show discipline and follow Tsipras. That response didn’t augur well for the future. The following day, I had a meeting at the Ministry of Finance with Nadia Valavani, the Alternate Minister. Varoufakis was absent because he was in negotiations in Brussels. As soon as we saw each other, she reminded me warmly that we had been together for the launch of the citizen audit of the debt in 2011. She added “Do you remember that in 2011 Varoufakis refused to support a citizen audit of the debt?” and she indicated that she didn’t trust his political orientation. She then explained the plan she wanted to put into action in order to find a solution favourable to the two million Greek taxpayers who owed the State a debt of less than 2,000 euros. She also wanted to take measures against wealthy Greeks who cheat on their taxes. On 15 February, I had a meeting with Rania Antonopoulos, who had contacted me around 23 January by e-mail to say she agreed with the content of my article in Le Monde about Greece’s debt and the need for an audit. Meanwhile she had become Alternate Minister for Combatting Unemployment, in charge of creating 300,000 jobs. She explained the struggle she wanted to carry on in order to put an end to the policies that held unemployed persons responsible for their own situation. On 15 February, I took part in a demonstration on Syntagma Square in protest of the Eurogroup and in support of the commitments made by the Tsipras government. 20,000 demonstrators expressed their hope of seeing things change.
On Monday 16 February, I was received by the President of the Hellenic Parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou. The meeting was very positive. Ms. Konstantopoulou wanted to initiate an audit of Greece’s debt to identify illegitimate, illegal, and odious debt. She had decided to make the meeting public. The information was picked up by a number of sites. 18 See Zoe Konstantopoulou’s account of our collaboration for the creation of a debt audit committee here.
In the early evening, I met for an hour with the Alternate Minister of National Defence, Costas Ysichos. We discussed the negotiations then being held at the European level and the issue of debt. Costas Ysichos was director of Syriza’s Left Platform, which was closest to the CADTM’s own positions — that is, that the audit of the debt should be combined with a unilateral suspension of payments.
On 17 February, following Zoe Konstanpoulou’s discussion of our meeting, Nikos Chountis, the Alternate Minister of European Affairs, wanted to see me. As a member of the left wing of Syriza, he expressed his sympathy for the CADTM’s proposals, but as a member of the government he told me that Tsipras had a different orientation. He asked me if I would consider working with the government if it should take a more radical orientation towards the debt. As noted above, the contacts I had had with Caravelis from 2 January 2015 had been at the request of Nikos Chountis, but had not led to positive results.
Varoufakis misrepresents the debates that took place among the public authorities in Greece and within Syriza in February 2015. He limits the debate on the possible options to what went on within the small circle of people around Tsipras and of which he was a member. He minimizes the opposition to the choices that were made by that circle by referring to "the grumblings of some Syriza MPs” when in fact the opposition within the Syriza parliamentary group and within the government amounted to roughly a third of all members. Within the Syriza Central Committee, opposition was at 41%. What is more, since Tsipras and he presented the concessions they made in a biased way, some of the MPs and ministers, while they had doubts, supported the orientation that was taken — without enthusiasm and in the hope that Tsipras, who had their full trust, would lead the government and the negotiations in the right direction.
I maintain, as do others, that a very different orientation from the one adopted by Varoufakis and the small circle around Tsipras should have been taken. To apply the Thessaloniki Programme, the Tsipras government would have had to take the following initiatives and measures:
– make public the government’s five or ten priorities in the negotiations, in particular as regards debt, while very clearly denouncing the illegitimate nature of the debts whose repayment the Troika was demanding;
– establish contacts with the social movements and — in the name of the government or of Syriza — urge the creation of solidarity committees in as many countries as possible, in parallel with the negotiations with the creditors, in order to develop a broad solidarity movement;
– refuse to engage in secret diplomacy;
– develop international channels of communication in order to get past the gate-keeping of the dominant media;
– use the provisions of European Regulation 472 regarding auditing of debts, launch the audit with citizen participation and suspend debt repayments beginning with the debt to the IMF. Remember that Tsipras, in presenting the Thessaloniki Programme, had declared: “We demand immediate parliamentary elections and a strong negotiation mandate with the goal to:
Write off the greater part of public debt’s nominal value so that it becomes sustainable in the context of a ‘European Debt Conference.’ It happened for Germany in 1953.  It can also happen for the South of Europe and Greece.
Include a ‘growth clause’ in the repayment of the remaining part so that it is growth-financed and not budget-financed.
Include a significant period of grace (‘moratorium’) in debt servicing to save funds for growth.
Exclude public investment from the restrictions of the Stability and Growth Pact. 20
– put an end to the Memorandum of Understanding in conformity with the commitment made to the Greek people at the time of the 25 January election. Tsipras had declared “We assume responsibility and are accordingly committed to the Greek people for a National Reconstruction Plan that will replace the Memorandum as early as our first days in power, before and regardless of the negotiation outcome.” 21
– establish oversight over movements of capital;
– adopt a law on banks to ensure that the public authorities have oversight over them. Tsipras had announced on 13 September 2014 in Thessaloniki: “With a Syriza government, the public sector will regain its control over the Hellenic Financial Stability Fund (HFSF) and it will have rights over recapitalized banks. 22 This means that the public sector will now decide how the banks are run.” ; 23
– adopt a law cancelling private debts to the State, for example for debts of less than 3,000 euros. Such a measure would have immediately improved the situation of 3.3 million taxpayers (including 357,000 SMEs) who owed less than 3,000€ (including penalties); 24
– radically reduce the VAT on basic goods and services;
– roll back the cuts in retirement pensions and the minimum legal wage;
– implement the emergency plan to ease the humanitarian crisis called for in the Thessaloniki Programme;
– implement a parallel/complementary payment system;
– replace Stournaras by a competent and trustworthy person at the head of the central bank;
– prepare for new reprisals by the European authorities, and therefore for a possible exit from the Eurozone.
The author wishes to thank Alexis Cukier, Marie-Laure Coulmin-Koutsaftis, Nathan Legrand, Stathis Kouvelakis, Brigitte Ponet and Patrick Saurin for their attentive reviews of this article. The author is solely and entirely responsible for any errors or omissions contained therein.
1. Yanis Varoufakis, Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment, London: The Bodley Head (Vintage), 2017, p.300.
2. The first three paragraphs of this article were taken from the previous article of this series (http://www.cadtm.org/Varoufakis-Surrounded-Himself-with)
3. For the full text of this letter see Zero Hedge.
4. See also Zero Hedge, “The Reason Why The Eurogroup Rushed To Approve The Greek Reform Package?”, published on 24 February 2015, https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-02-24/stunning-reason-why-eurogroup-rushed-approve-greek-reform-package
5. Nadia Valavani, member of the left of Syriza and Varoufakis’s Alternate Minister, opposed the concessions made to the Troika regarding tax debts owed to the State by tax-payers. She was unwilling to modify, in the restrictive sense, her draft bill concerning the payment of tax arrears to the State, especially by removing the measures of partial debt-cancellation that she had initially proposed.
6. Dora Antoniou, “L’accord provoque des remous dans Syriza”, 25 February 2015. (trans. CADTM) http://www.kathimerini.gr/804911/article/epikairothta/politikh/h-symfwnia-prokalei-kradasmoys-ston-syriza. Regarding Nadia Valavani’s criticism and the toughening of the draft bill on payment of tax arrears, see: “Κούρεμα» στη ρύθμιση των 100 δόσεων” (Haircut of the draft bill on the 100 monthly payments), 25 February 2015, http://www.kathimerini.gr/804896/article/oikonomia/ellhnikh-oikonomia/koyrema-sth-ry8mish-twn-100-dosewn
7. Note that Varoufakis, in his book, claims that the war cabinet had authorized him to notify the Troika of three points: that to any attempt to weaken the country through a liquidity crunch, the government would respond by refusing to honour debt payments due to the IMF; that at any sign that the Troika was trying to contain the government within the Memorandum and refusing debt restructuration, the latter would end negotiations; that at any threat of bank closures and capital control, the government would respond with a unilateral haircut of the Greek bonds held by the ECB since 2010-2012 and by setting up a system of parallel payments. The trouble is, these threats were never communicated to the Troika. Nor were they ever made public. Varoufakis admits as much. As for carrying them out, as will be seen further on, Tsipras and most of the Cabinet firmly opposed the idea and Varoufakis let it go until the final capitulation of July 2015. All this was discussed by a very small committee and neither the government nor the leadership of Syriza were ever informed. The Greek population were kept totally in the dark.
8. The story about “the grumblings of some Syriza MPs” is the official version that was taken up by certain media (To Vima in particular, though not Kathimerini). All, however, noted that the atmosphere at the meeting had been “dramatic”.
9. An indicative vote by a show of hands had been held towards the end of the meeting, very late at night. At that point, there were about 120 MPs present and about 40 of them voted “no” or indicated a “blank” vote, which in Greece is tantamount to voting against. The six ministers concerned voted blank. A brief account of this meeting was published on 26 February 2015 on the Greek alternative press website, The Press Project (https://www.thepressproject.gr/ ) in an article written by Vasiliki Siouti:
It seems that the SYRIZA government is having a difficult time gaining support for the deal signed between Varoufakis and the Eurogroup.
At a twelve hour-long meeting of the SYRIZA Parliamentary Group held on Wednesday 25th February, parliamentarians criticized the deal signed between the Greek government and the Eurogroup. The meeting culminated with an indicative vote for or against the deal. Panagiotis Lafazanis, the leader of the Left Platform and current minister for productive reconstruction and energy, requested that the votes be counted, but this was rejected. Nonetheless, with about thirty MPs having left the room when the vote took place, a third of the MPs present rejected the deal either with a ‘no’ or a ‘blank’ vote.
All deputies of the Left Platform and several others – amongst them Zoe Konstantopoulou, the President of Parliament; Nina Kasimati and others – voted ‘no’ or blank. Government ministers such as Panagiotis Lafazanis, Nikos Chountis, Dimitris Stratoulis, Kostas Isichos, Nadia Valavani and Thodoris Dritsas voted blank. Many of those deputies who voted blank expressed disapproval of Varoufakis’s manoeuvres.
Deputies took their positions based mainly on briefings from Varoufakis and prime minister Alexis Tsipras, since they have not received full documentation of what was agreed at the Eurogroup.
Published 28 February 2015 at: http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/syriza_mps_revolt_against_the_agreement
10. For an assessment of the CADTM’s commitment to Greece, see Eric Toussaint, “L’action du CADTM en solidarité avec le peuple grec” (2009 – 2016) http://www.cadtm.org/L-action-du-CADTM-en-solidarite (in French only).
11. In May 2006 the last large European Social Forum was held in Athens. Tens of thousands of activists came from all over Europe. Afterwards the ESF went into decline, for reasons unrelated to what was happening in Greece.
12. In May-June 2012, Tsípras put forward five concrete proposals for beginning negotiations with the parties opposed to the Troika (except Golden Dawn): 1. Abolition of all anti-social measures (including the reductions of wages and retirement pensions). 2. Abolition of all measures that reduced workers’ rights as regards protection and negotiation. 3. Immediate abolition of parliamentary immunity and reform of the election system. 4. An audit of the Greek banks. 5. The creation of an international debt audit committee combined with suspension of repayment of the debt until the end of the committee’s work.
13. See Eric Toussaint, “Greece: an alternative” http://www.cadtm.org/Greece-an-alternative
14. I explained how a citizens’ audit developed in Greece in the third part. I also tried to explain how this initiative, that had started in 2011, significantly influenced Syriza’s 2012 programme: the demand for a debt audit combined with suspension of payments and cancellation of illegitimate debt had met with widespread approval among the Greek population during the Occupy the Squares movement in June-July 2011.
15. See “Alexis Tsipras is right to call for an international conference on debt” http://www.cadtm.org/Eric-Toussaint-Alexis-Tsipras-is, 27 October 2014.
16. http://www.cadtm.org/Hands-off-Greece-fighting-back-and published 31 December 2014.
17. http://www.cadtm.org/Syriza-le-feu-a-la-plaine-ou-le (in French).
18. Συνάντηση Κωνσταντοπούλου με ειδικό περί της διαγραφής χρεών κρατώνΠολιτική | ΓενικάΜε τον Eric Toussaint συναντήθηκε η πρόεδρος της βουλής. Ο κ. Toussaint έχει μακρά εμπειρία σε ζητήματα επονείδιστου και παράνομου χρέους.
19. At the London Conference, on 27 February 1953, the Federal Republic of Germany, with the consent of twenty-one of its creditors (including the USA, the UK, France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, and Greece), was granted a 62.6% reduction of its debt. See: Eric Toussaint, “The cancellation of German debt in 1953 versus the attitude to the Third World and Greece.”
20. Excerpts from the Thessaloniki Programme, presented by Alexis Tsipras on 13 September 2014 (https://www.syriza.gr/article/syriza---the-thessaloniki-programme.html)
21. Excerpt from the Thessaloniki Programme (see the link above)
22. Varoufakis was opposed to this measure, since he wanted to transfer the “shares and management” of the Greek banks to the European creditors. As for the Tsipras government, it has not taken any action yet so that the Greek State can exercise its rights over the recapitalized banks. Moreover, the Hellenic Financial Stability Fund has been left in the hands of close associates of private bankers and the European leaders.
23. Excerpt from the Thessaloniki Programme (see http://www.cadtm.org/The-Varoufakis-Tsipras-Line-was)
Eric Toussaint is a historian and political scientist who completed his Ph.D. at the universities of Paris VIII and Liège, is the spokesperson of the CADTM International, and sits on the Scientific Council of ATTAC France. He is the author of Bankocracy (2015); The Life and Crimes of an Exemplary Man (2014); Glance in the Rear View Mirror. Neoliberal Ideology From its Origins to the Present (2012), etc. Since the 4th April 2015 he is the scientific coordinator of the Greek Truth Commission on Public Debt