May 29, 2018. Carlo Cottarelli meets Italy's President Sergio Mattarella at Quirinale palace. Usq/Ropi/Zuma Press/Press Association. All rights reserved.Aldo Cazzullo, Corriere Della Sera (AC): Let us start from the beginning? Why did you decide to resign after OXI’s victory in the Greek referendum?
Yanis Varoufakis (YV): Because that very night, when I spoke to Prime Minister Tsipras, he declared his readiness to turn the NO, our people’s majestic 62% OXI vote, into a YES. Staying would have meant endorsing the overthrowing of a people by its… government.
AC: Did you know or did you expect that Tsipras would accept an even harder austerity plan than the one rejected by the Greek people?
YV: Of course. The troika were not interested in policies that worked for Greece or for Europe. Indeed, they were not even very interested in getting their money back – for if they did care about their money, they would have accepted the moderate proposals I put to them which would have generated more income, more taxes and, ultimately, more repayments to our creditors. No, they were only interested in one thing: Crushing the Greek Spring and humiliating Tsipras so as to signal to the peoples of Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and, ultimately, France that they will suffer if they dare vote for governments that do not obey Berlin and Frankfurt. Tsipras’ humiliation via brutal new austerity was the priority. Our priority ought to have been to honour that NO.
AC: What are your relations with Tsipras today? What are you predictions about the next Greek elections?
YV: My relation with Tsipras is non-existent for a simple reason: we have nothing to talk about! In order for him to continue to do what he does he needs to tell himelf a story that he knows I know that he knows to be… untrue!
As for the election results, it is too early to tell. Syriza and New Democracy are struggling to convince the people that each of them will be better at implementing measures that everyone knows will fail. This causes widespread despondency and apathy, boosting abstention and the de-legitimation of politics. Our new party, MeRA25, will do well, I hope, as long as the voters learn about us; as long as we manage to break down the complete media silence about us and the total exclusion of our representatives from TV and most radio stations. As we say, our only opponent is the… couch which keeps disappointed but politicised, progressive people from going to the polling stations on election day.
AC: What’s your political project today?
YV: Across Europe, it is to turn the May 2019 European Parliament elections into a transnational campaign against both the Deep Establishment’s business-as-usual and the nationalists’ false promises. To this effect, our Democracy in Europe Movement, DiEM25, has inaugurated, together with other political forces across Europe, including of course in Italy, a transnational progressive list, #EuropeanSpring, with which to succeed in putting forward a progressive, hopeful, ambitious, credible alternative.
As for Greece, my project is to help turn MeRA25, DiEM25’s new political party, into an instrument by which to end Greece’s Great Depression.
AC: The Other Europe with Tsipras list gathered 4% of votes during the last elections. How much would a Varoufakis list score?
YV: There will be no Varoufakis list! The time for ‘saviours’ and persona-led parties is well and truly over. I am happy to be one of the many co-founders of DiEM25 and of our #EuropeanSpring. And I am proud of being part of Europe’s first transnational political party aiming to save all our countries from the false dilemma between the troika or exit, between pro-Europe and anti-Europe, between an authoritarian establishment and an authoritarian anti-European nationalism.
AC: Who are your interlocutors and allies in Italy? What do you think about Liberi e Uguali the party of Mr D’Alema and Vendola?
YV: The reason we formed DiEM25 in the first place was the diagnosis that old wine in new bottles will not help revive the spirits of progressives in Italy or in the rest of Europe. The performance of parties like Liberi e Uguali in Italy, the social democrats and the Left in Germany, and other such parties elsewhere confirmed this.
So, our main interlocutors are our members, the activists of DiEM25 Italia who, recently, held twenty regional constituency meetings to construct a national political structure involving 10,000 citizens and, with this structure, to join in our transnational #EuropeanSpring movement. Rather than indulging the old school of politics, we refuse to enter into negotiations with politicians with a view to divide positions and share offices. Instead, we are concentrating on cultivating a new school of politics which concentrates on talking only about policy proposals and ideas of what must be done. In this context, we place a great deal of emphasis on local government, municipalist movements and solutions. It is in this context that we are working, for example, with Napoli Mayor Luigi de Magistris in constructing our transnational #EuropeanSpring.
Having established that Italy and the rest of Europe needs a new political movement along the lines of DiEM25, we have made the courageous decision to contest the national and, of course, the European Parliament elections in Italy. Our members are currently debating the final details and the manner in which we shall construct as broad a coalition as possible against both the incompetent establishment and the xenophobic nationalists. On June 13 we shall be announcing our decisions in Milano.
AC: Much has happened in Italy in the last few hours. Do you regret that a Lega-5S government was not born?
YV: I regret that President Mattarella had no problem with Salvini being Interior Minister given his promise to throw half a million migrants out of the country
I regret that not even for a moment did he consider vetoing the idea of a European country deploying its security forces to round up hundreds of thousands of people, cage them, and force them into trains, buses and ferries before sending them goodness knows where.
I regret that Matteo Renzi missed his opportunity to insist that Berlin accepts a policy re-think that would make our countries sustainable within the eurozone – thus putting Salvini and de Maio in the driving seat.
Finally, I regret that President Mattarella’s only concern was to block the appointment of a finance minister that voiced reasonable concerns about the euro’s architecture (concerns that all decent economists have, even ones supporting the euro vehemently) and who believed that Italy should have a plan for exiting the euro just in case it is needed (a plan that everyone has, including the ECB, the German government, every major bank etc.)
AC: Could the two populisms get together against the Brussels and Berlin elite?
YV: You are asking someone who sees populism as a clear and present threat to democracy and to prosperity for the many. There is a profound difference between being popular and being populist. Populists exploit fear and anger to garner power in order to use it against the majority. If Brussels and Berlin lose to populism, we all lose. This is why DiEM25 is so keen to create a democratic, Europeanist alternative to both (A) the authoritarian incompetence of Berlin-Brussels, and (B) to the xenophobic populists.
AC: Do you know Mr Salvini and if yes what do you think about him?
YV: No, I have never met him.
AC: You said that the 5 Star movement is not a left party. What are they then? Could they still be considered an anti-system movement?
YV: They began as an anti-system movement combining some ideas that would benefit the common people with increasingly xenophobic views. They are appealing to Italians who are being held back by corruption and by austerity – and who, wrongly, turn against the foreigners, the ‘others’. Having said that, I am convinced that 5S has risen high only because the Left has failed so spectacularly.
AC: Does it still make sense to distinguish between a political left and right? Or is the new division among the people and the elite, those on top and those at the bottom, or between globalist and nationalist or (sovereign-ist)?
YV: As long as we live under capitalism, the Left-Right divide will be pertinent and inescapable. As long as there is a distinction between those who work but do not own the company and those who own the company (or parts of it) without working in it, the tug of war between capital and labour, profit and wages will be central in determining social outcomes. And so will the Left-Right distinction. But, having said that, there are moments in history, like the 1930s and the post-2008 period, when the crisis of capitalism is so deep, and democracy so much under treat, that room is created for a minimum common program between anti-systemic liberals, Marxists, ecologists, even progressive conservatives. This is why we say that, while I and many of my DiEM25 colleagues are unapologetic left-wingers, DiEM25 is more than a left-wing movement. It is rather the meeting place of democrats eager to find an alternative both to the inane establishment and to the nationalists.
AC: President Mattarella has rejected Professor Savona as minister of finance because he is supposedly anti-German. But isn’t there a sort of German arrogance whereby Germans aim to dictate rules to other EU countries?
YV: The problem with the German elites is that they are refusing to be hegemonic and, thus, end up being authoritarian. The German political class continues to behave as if Germany is a small open economy whose net exports are only due to the skill and hard work of their engineers and whose surpluses are well earned. They deny the macroeconomic effects of their policies upon their partners and insist, puzzlingly, on celebrating their surpluses while admonishing others for having… deficits. In the end, German savers are forced by the laws of economics to entrust their savings to foreigners whom they end up despising for being indebted to them.
Free riding comes in two varieties: (1) Wanting to live off other people’s money. And, (2) Wanting to benefit from the low exchange rate that other people’s moneylessness causes. It is clear that no Union can survive in this manner. Unfortunately, there seems to be no likelihood of a change in Berlin now that the new social democratic finance minister has proven more austere and less imaginative than even Dr Wolfgang Schauble was.
AC: Introducing Professor Savona, the Bild wrote he is ‘the new Varoufakis’. Are they wrong?
YV: Of course. The profound difference is that I was desperate to keep Greece in the euro sustainably, which required that I clash with the troika whose policies (and refusal of the necessary debt restructuring within the euro) were making this impossible. In contrast, exiting the euro is the not-so-secret dream of the Lega (the party behind the choice of Mr Savona).
AC: You know the US very well. What do you think about Trump and his ideologist Bannon who visited Italy last March and who is supporting a national ( sovereign-ist) government?
YV: Mr Bannon is, undoubtedly, an ultra-dangerous belligerent who wants catastrophic regime change (Libya- and Iraq-style) in countries where, if he succeeds, developments will turn the world into an even more treacherous place than it already is, with many more millions of refugees flooding our shores. Mr Trump, on the other hand, is trying to control the diminution of American power through a process of economic shock-and-awe that stuns Germany and China into submission. The combination of his scandalous corporate tax cuts, the new tariffs, and his pulling out of the Iran deal are part of this overarching program. However, I have little doubt that, if he succeeds, the result will be a new global recession that, ultimately, undermines American interests as well.
AC: Has Angela Merkel reached end of her political career? Who’s next?
YV: Yes. Mrs Merkel is now an enfeebled Chancellor, totally at the mercy of those in her party who are already plotting her replacement. Of course, she is totally to blame, having squandered enormous political power since 2010 that she could have used to unite Europe, rather than divide it via the awful policy mix of universal austerity for the many and socialism for the bankers. Sadly, her successor, whomever it is, will make us feel nostalgic for Mrs Merkel – just like Mr Scholz managed to make me miss Dr Schauble!
AC: What about Renzi?
YV: He wasted his many opportunities to make a positive difference. I shall mention two: First, the opportunity to go to Brussels to demand, as the Prime Minister of the third largest eurozone country, that the EU considers changes to the eurozone rules that would make our countries sustainable within the euro area. He chose, instead, to demand Italy’s right to bend the existing rules – thus looking in German eyes like a spoilt child. Secondly, in June/July 2015 he had an opportunity to defend the then Greek government’s arguments in favour of an immediate debt restructure and a humane fiscal policy. Instead of helping Europe demonstrate that it could be a decent place for deficit countries like ours, he aided Merkel to throttle Tsipras and push him into capitulating. On the day of that capitulation, he celebrated that “they” had gotten “rid of Varoufakis”. The road toward his own downfall was thus paved.
AC: What do you think about the Italian left? the PD is divided among followers of Renzi willing to position the party on the political centre, and the post-communists pushing more to the left.
YV: Very little, sadly. Unfortunately, my friends on the Italian Left still believe that they can stitch together a coalition without a clear, European-wide agenda, forgetting that the whole they are constructing is even less than the sum of the parts. I wish this were not so, so that we could support them. But it is so and this is why DiEM25 has made the momentous decision to contest elections in Italy: because we need a progressive movement that ushers in a new school of principled politics.
AC: Is Corbyn a good model for revamping the European left?
YV: Jeremy Corbyn has already made a gigantic contribution to the quality of politics in Europe, and not just left-wing politics. He has shown that it is possible to activate politically millions of disenfranchised young people that the establishment traditionally dismisses as apolitical, Generation Y etc. And he has proven that a principled position can cut through the walls erected in our way by systemic media doing the job of an authoritarian oligarchy.
Having said that, we must not forget that the UK is quite different to our continental countries – which means that, while we must learn from Jeremy, we can’t just copy his techniques. We need our own strategy which, in the case of Europe, must be transnational – like the one DiEM25 has been putting together since February 2016.
AC: What do you think about Macron?
YV: I have spoken a great deal about the French President, praising his solidarity to me personally in 2015 and explaining that he understands that the present architecture of the eurozone is unsustainable. On the other hand, I also said that, ever since he rose to the Presidency, he has adopted legislation that is socially regressive (e.g. cutting taxes on the rich while diminishing the incomes of weaker citizens), awfully authoritarian (e.g. he made permanent security legislation that clashes with civil liberties) and self-defeating.
He also put forward proposals about eurozone reform which, while in the right direction, were too lukewarm. Worse still, he did not back them up with any credible threat to Berlin – which led Mrs Merkel and the German establishment to bury them. The result is that, given France’s inability to flourish in the present architecture of the eurozone, Mr Macron is a spent force. He looks and sounds good but his capacity to make a difference has been wasted and will, from now on, lose authority little by little.
AC: What about Podemos in Spain, and the current discussion about Pablo Iglesias’ new villa?
YV: Podemos blew fresh wind into the progressive side of politics when it managed to give voice to the Indignados. My concern is not the new villa that Pablo and his partner have purchased. Even though I understand the reactions against this purchase, the notion that those speaking for the dispossessed must be themselves dispossessed is not one that I can adopt. No, my concern is Podemos’ reluctance to articulate a coherent economic and social policy framework that answers to specific questions such as: “If elected, what will you do in the Eurogroup? What is your policy on non-performing bank loans and how will you implement it against resistance from the ECB?” Without such a policy framework, progressive movements like Podemos can never win elections. This is why at DiEM25 we are putting so much emphasis in presenting a rational, comprehensive policy agenda that answers all these burning questions.
AC: What do you think about the prospects for a Cottarelli government?
YV: First, let me say that this is not a personal matter. I know Carlo Cottarelli from his days at the IMF, I worked with him in 2015, and I hold him in some personal esteem. His problem is that, unlike Mario Monti, he cannot count on anything like a parliamentary majority. His will be a stopgap, caretaker government that will hold the ‘fort’ until a new election strengthens the ultra-right further, to the detriment of migrants, progressive Italians and our common goal to turn Europe into as realm of shared prosperity.
A shorter version of this interview first appeared in Italian in Corriere Della Sera, the Italian daily on May 31, 2018.