Greece has finally reached an agreement with its creditors. The specifics have not yet been published, but it is clear that the deal signed is more punitive and demanding than the one that its government has spent the past five months desperately trying to resist.
The accord follows 48 hours in which Germany demanded control of Greece’s finances or its withdrawal from the euro. Many observers across Europe were stunned by the move. Yanis Varoufakis was not. When I spoke with Greece’s former finance minister last week, I asked him whether any deal struck in the days ahead would be good for his country.
“If anything it will be worse,” he said. “I trust and hope that our government will insist on debt restructuring, but I can’t see how the German finance minister [Wolfgang Schäuble] is ever going to sign up to this. If he does, it will be a miracle.”
Varoufakis, who resigned a week ago, has been criticised for not signing an agreement sooner, but he said the deal that Greece was offered was not made in good faith – or even one that the Troika wanted completed. In an hour-long telephone interview with the New Statesman, he called the creditors’ proposals – those agreed to by the Athens government on Friday night, which now seem somehow generous – “absolutely impossible, totally non-viable and toxic …[they were] the kind of proposals you present to another side when you don’t want an agreement.”
Varoufakis added: “This country must stop extending and pretending, we must stop taking on new loans pretending that we’ve solved the problem, when we haven’t; when we have made our debt even less sustainable on condition of further austerity that even further shrinks the economy; and shifts the burden further onto the have-nots, creating a humanitarian crisis.”
In Varoufakis’s account, the Troika never genuinely negotiated during his five months as finance minister. He argued that Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza government was elected to renegotiate an austerity programme that had clearly failed; over the past five years it has put a quarter of Greeks out of work, and created the worst depression anywhere in the developed world since the 1930s. But he thinks that Greece’s creditors simply led him on.
A short-term deal could, Varoufakis said, have been struck soon after Syriza came to power in late January. “Three or four reforms” could have been agreed, and restrictions on liquidity eased by the ECB in return.
Instead, “The other side insisted on a ‘comprehensive agreement’, which meant they wanted to talk about everything. My interpretation is that when you want to talk about everything, you don’t want to talk about anything.” But a comprehensive agreement was impossible. “There were absolutely no [new] positions put forward on anything by them.”
Varoufakis said that Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister and the architect of the deals Greece signed in 2010 and 2012, was “consistent throughout”. “His view was ‘I’m not discussing the programme – this was accepted by the previous [Greek] government and we can’t possibly allow an election to change anything.
“So at that point I said ‘Well perhaps we should simply not hold elections anymore for indebted countries’, and there was no answer. The only interpretation I can give [of their view] is, ‘Yes, that would be a good idea, but it would be difficult. So you either sign on the dotted line or you are out.’”
“It’s not that it didn’t go down well – there was point blank refusal to engage in economic arguments. Point blank. You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on, to make sure it’s logically coherent, and you’re just faced with blank stares. It is as if you haven’t spoken. What you say is independent of what they say. You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem – you’d have got the same reply.”
This weekend divisions surfaced within the Eurogroup, with countries split between those who seemed to want a “Grexit” and those demanding a deal. But Varoufakis said they were always been united in one respect: their refusal to renegotiate.
“There were people who were sympathetic at a personal level, behind closed doors, especially from the IMF.” He confirmed that he was referring to Christine Lagarde, the IMF director. “But then inside the Eurogroup [there were] a few kind words and that was it: back behind the parapet of the official version. … Very powerful figures look at you in the eye and say ‘You’re right in what you’re saying, but we’re going to crunch you anyway’.”
Varoufakis was reluctant to name individuals, but added that the governments that might have been expected to be the most sympathetic towards Greece were actually their “most energetic enemies”. He said that the “greatest nightmare” of those with large debts – the governments of countries like Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland – “was our success”. “Were we to succeed in negotiating a better deal, that would obliterate them politically: they would have to answer to their own people why they didn’t negotiate like we were doing.”
He suggested that Greece’s creditors had a strategy to keep his government busy and hopeful of a compromise, but in reality they were slowly suffering and eventually desperate.
“They would say we need all your data on the fiscal path on which Greek finds itself, all the data on state-owned enterprises. So we spent a lot of time trying to provide them with it and answering questionnaires and having countless meetings.
“So that would be the first phase. The second phase was they’d ask us what we intended to do on VAT. They would then reject our proposal but wouldn’t come up with a proposal of their own. And then, before we would get a chance to agree on VAT, they would shift to another issue, like privatisation. They would ask what we want to do about privatisation: we put something forward, they would reject it. Then they’d move onto another topic, like pensions, from there to product markets, from there to labour relations. … It was like a cat chasing its own tail.”
His conclusion was succinct. “We were set up.”
And he was adamant about who is responsible. I asked whether German attitudes control the outlook of the Eurogroup. Varoufakis went further. “Oh completely and utterly. Not attitudes – the finance minister of Germany. It is all like a very well-tuned orchestra and he is the director.