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Yanis Varoufakis on Angela Merkel’s Legacy, European Politics & the “Sordid Arms Race” on the Seas

StorySeptember 29, 2021
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The center-left Social Democratic Party in Germany has narrowly claimed victory in an election that marks an end to the 16-year era of Angela Merkel’s conservative chancellorship. We look at what this means for Europe and the world with Yanis Varoufakis, a member of the Greek Parliament and the former finance minister of Greece. The SDP’s narrow victory should be viewed critically, says Varoufakis, noting that the party “ruthlessly” practiced austerity in 2008 and 2009. “Not much has changed,” Varoufakis says. “It’s not as if an opposition party won.”

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn now to Germany, where the center-left Social Democratic Party narrowly claimed victory Sunday in an election that puts an end to the 16-year era of Angela Merkel’s conservative leadership. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democrats, won the second most votes, with the Green Party coming in third. Social Democrats will now have to form a ruling coalition, which could take weeks or possibly months. The SDP’s candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who positioned himself as a leader in the vein of Merkel during his campaign, vowed to tackle the climate crisis and modernize industry, he says.

Well, for more on what this means for Europe and the world, we’re joined in Greece by Yanis Varoufakis. He’s a member of the Greek Parliament, former finance minister of Greece who negotiated with Chancellor Merkel and international creditors in 2015, when they demanded harsh new austerity measures for a European bailout of Greece, largely at Merkel’s behest, although at some points Varoufakis was excluded from the negotiations. His latest piece for Jacobin is headlined “Angela Merkel Was Bad for Europe and the World.” His new book is called Another Now.

We welcome you back to Democracy Now!, Yanis. If you can first talk about what’s happened in Germany, what it means for Greece and for the world?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: Well, it’s good to be back, Amy. Thank you.

Look, not much has changed. Let’s not hyperventilate about the great changes. Point number one: Angela Merkel was not defeated. She’s the first German chancellor in the postwar era that has not been defeated. She resigned. So, she is going home because she’s had enough. Point number one.

Point number two: The previous administrations, at least the last two, were administrations — the so-called grand coalitions between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, who now narrowly beat the Christian Democrats. So, it’s not as if [inaudible] Democrats are coming into government. They went into government. Olaf Scholz, who is going to be chancellor, if this coalition that he’s now concocting comes to fruition, he was finance minister until yesterday. So, let’s, you know, take down a few notches all the hype about the great changes that we’re going to see in Germany.

The other point, which is very important — two points, if I may, Amy, quickly, brief ones. Firstly, the austerity that hit our country here in Greece in 2010 was first practiced in 2009 — not to such an extent, but it was first practiced, put into place in Germany in 2009 — 2008, 2009, by the Social Democrats themselves. So it’s not as if the Social Democrats are an anti-austerity party. They were the inventors of austerity, and they practiced it ruthlessly in Germany.

And finally, the point I need to make is that whoever is in this government and whoever leads this government, this government is going to contain, for the first time since ages, the so-called Free Democratic — the Free Democrats of Germany, the FDP, which is a very strong, austerian, right-wing — libertarian even — party. And they are going to exact a pound of flesh from the Social Democrats or the Christian Democrats or the Greens, whoever joins them up. Their price for joining the government will be business as usual.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well ,Yanis Varoufakis, you have argued, in articles you published in the New Statesman and Jacobin, that Merkel’s austerity policies condemned Europe and Germany to decline. Could you expand on that?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: Happily. Remember the Lehman Brothers and the great financial meltdown of 2008? Very soon after that, Angela Merkel found out, to her, you know, disbelief, that the German banks were also kaput, bankrupt. And so were the French banks. So were all the banks in the European Union, including the British ones. And they had to actually salvage them, like President Obama did in the United States, except that, unlike President Obama, the Europeans had given up on having a central bank, a national central bank. So they effected a cynical transfer of — instead of printing money, instead of having the Central Bank of Europe, the ECB, print the money, which is what Tim Geithner and Larry Summers and Barack Obama did in the United States — instead of doing that, they transferred their losses onto the shoulders of the weakest taxpayers, who were Greeks, you know, working-class Germans and so on. So you had socialism for the very few, for the bankers, and harsh austerity for everyone else — not just the Greeks, but the German workers, the French workers, the Slovak workers, the Portuguese workers, the Spanish workers.

Now, what happens when you do that? You know, the bankers have been refloated. They are constantly being given money that the Central Bank brings, eventually. And the masses are suffering and laboring under the yoke of austerity. Now, big business looks at the “little people” out there and says, “Oh, well, they will not be able to afford the equivalent of a German Tesla,” let’s say, so they don’t build one. They won’t invest. So investment is very low. Good quality jobs disappear. They are replaced by mini jobs, delivery jobs, you know, the gig economy. So you have discontent across Europe. You have low levels of investment in the places that are the richest, like Germany. And, of course, you have nonexistent investment in places like Greece.

This is what I said when I tried to make the point in the articles that you kindly mentioned, that Angela Merkel leaves the chancellery, the office of prime minister of Germany, much stronger than she inherited it, because of the crisis. She leaves Germany complete and replete and full of economic surpluses, of, you know, surplus money. But she also leaves it with low levels of investment and, effectively, condemned to be falling behind China and the United States when it comes to the things humanity and Europeans will be needing in the next few years, which is green energy, artificial intelligence, high-tech companies that can combine the green transition with some degree of shared prosperity.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about another issue that marks, I guess, Merkel’s legacy, is the issue of immigration. I mean, we’re seeing new images again, not just in the United States of Haitians and Central Americans at the border, but, once again, in Southern Europe, of 600 asylum seekers yesterday in one boat in Italy, a huge increase in those escaping from Africa and the Middle East, coming to Europe. Greece, obviously, has been dealing with this. But Merkel was distinguished among the leaders by initially welcoming hundreds of thousands of migrants into Germany, when other countries were trying to close their borders. Your sense of her legacy in terms of migration policy and how migration is affecting Europe, given the fact that these imperial powers keep waging wars, disrupting these countries, creating chaos, and then insisting that migrants cannot come into Europe?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: Yes, you are so right. I mean, it was such a show of hypocrisy recently, when the Taliban moved into Kabul, and the liberal press in the United States, and then, of course, in the European Union, they were horrified by the sight of the Taliban taking over, and all these concerns about the liberal, progressive Afghans, especially women, and then, at the very same time, you know, our great and good leaders, the same ones who were lamenting the success of the Taliban, they started talking about raising the height of the fences that they’re building to turn Europe into fortress Europe — not one mention of letting the Afghan women that are being persecuted by the Taliban come in.

But going back to your question about Merkel’s legacy when it comes to immigration, look, there was a key word in your question. That was “initially.” Her initial response, in 2015, the summer of 2015, when the Syrian refugees came storming in, running away from the civil war in Syria — her initial response was great. I mean, I even tweeted that — and, you know, I’m not a political ally of Angela Merkel. I said in my tweet that I am proud to be European because of Angela Merkel, because she said, “Let them in.” My goodness! And she let 1 million people in. But then, immediately, her pragmatism kicks in. She is the leader of a conservative party that would — was about to eat her up alive, to put it blunt — not too bluntly, I hope. And within two weeks, she reversed course. So, that initial response shows that the woman is probably a very decent person. And, you know, all kudos to her. But within two weeks, she spoke to the Turkish president, Mr. Erdoğan, and together they concocted a travesty of a policy.

Effectively, the European Union, under Merkel’s guidance, bribed, with a few billion euros, the president of Turkey, the Turkish government, to allow the European Union to violate international law, not to allow refugees. You know, refugees, on these ramshackle boats that end up on Lesbos, the Greek islands — right? — here, they really don’t have the right to seek asylum, because Merkel and Erdoğan agreed, years ago, with the approval of my former comrades in this government, after I resigned, the French, the Italians and so on — they agreed that Turkey is a safe country, and therefore, no refugees from Syria, from Afghanistan, from wherever, has the right, the automatic right, to file an application for a refugee status, even if they’ve been tortured. You know, this is absolutely preposterous. So, you have the initial reaction, which was good, and then you have what has been happening over the last few years.

Let me give you some — a piece of information which I think is significant. Last week, two weeks ago, a concentration camp, a prison camp, was built with European Union money, as part of the Merkel legacy, on the island of Samos. Now, on the one hand, you have those who are waxing lyrical about it, because those refugees that used to live in tents, and they would — you know, tents that would be washed away whenever there was a wintery storm or rain, heavy rain falling — you know, suddenly, they had decent dwellings. They even had a restaurant, and they had Wi-Fi. But what they forget to mention is that there is also barbed wire surrounding them. So these people can stay in there for years for having committed the crime of coming to Europe to seek refugee status.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Yanis Varoufakis, you’re speaking to us from a Greek island, and so we’re having a little trouble with the Skype. But thank you all for bearing with us. You tweeted on Tuesday, “At a time when the US& France are competing on which of the two will undermine Peace in the Pacific more effectively, the Greek PM is pushing Greece further into debt bondage by purchasing French frigates–with a nod from Biden so as to placate Macron. Greece deserves better!” And, of course, talking about AUKUS, this new military alliance to marginalize China, many are asking if it’s Biden who is really creating a new cold war with China. He makes a deal with the U.K. and Australia for — it was a deal, $65 billion, nuclear-powered subs. And this cut France out. They felt stabbed in the back. So now France is making a deal with Greece, further militarizing the world. Your thoughts?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: I am ever so depressed by this. You know, we are not learning any lessons from the past. You put it quite rightly. There is a sordid arms race, arms deal race, happening in the Pacific. So, you know, the French want to make some money out of the Australians by selling them submarines. The Americans come in, and they cut the French out of the deal. The French get seriously peeved. All this is happening, supposedly, in order to increase security in the Pacific. It is doing exactly the opposite, because the Chinese are simply going to respond to this arms race by just upping the ante, building more of their own nuclear subs.

The nuclear subs are a waste in any case. Now, you know, we live in a technological world where we have transparent oceans. These old-fashioned nuclear submarines are neither here nor there. They are not increasing security. If they increase anything, it is insecurity.

But there’s a lot of money to be made, by the French, who want to sell them, by the American government, who wants to make sure that their mates that are producing these nuclear subs get the deals from Australia. And Macron is stabbed. And then, sadly, President Biden decides to throw him a few morsels of bread in order to pacify him. And that is to give the green light to the Greek prime minister to buy three or four frigates from the French government, which — exactly what are they going to contribute to our security? Yes, we do have a problem with Turkey. We have a recalcitrant Turkey. We have a Turkish regime that traditionally proves imperialist or acts imperialistically when it wants to solidify its own foundering base within Turkey, because it is a dictatorship, and our Turkish comrades, Turkish democratic comrades, are suffering under it. So, whenever the Turkish government feels unsafe, it creates tensions in the Aegean. But how exactly is this going to help? By “this,” I mean a few more high-tech frigates that Greece is going to buy from France — using what? More debt.

You mentioned that, you know, I was a finance minister at the height of the Greek debt crisis. Well, let me restate it for the record, that, back then, when every newspaper in the world, including in the United States, was covered with articles about the Greek crisis, our debt-to-GDP ratio was something like 170%, 150%, 170%. Right? One-and-a-half times our national income. Today it’s more than twice. It’s 210%, 212%. And still they are borrowing more money from the Europeans to buy European frigates to pacify Macron in terms of what he lost in the Pacific, while both the Pacific and the Aegean oceans and seas are becoming less secure and more prone to conflicts that will only have victims amongst the working classes of China, of Australia, of the United States, of Greece, of Turkey, of France and Germany.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Yanis, if you can say why you called your new book Another Now?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: Because I’m a leftist. And we leftists have a problem, Amy, especially those of us who declare to be critical of capitalism or against capitalism, because the obvious question that then comes or is thrown at us is — and it’s a fair question — “Mate, if you don’t like capitalism, what’s the alternative? How could we have organized society — the economy, polity, the whole thing — differently without capitalism?” So I decided to write a novel, a science fiction novel, a political science fiction novel, in which I imagine that the 2008 great financial collapse led to not just Occupy Wall Street, but to a global movement that, with some degree of realism, built another now.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to ask you to stay so we can have a further conversation about Another Now and post it at democracynow.org. Yanis Varoufakis, member of the Greek Parliament, former finance minister of Greece. His latest piece for Jacobin, we’ll link to, “Angela Merkel Was Bad for Europe and the World.” His new book is titled Another Now.

And that does it for our show. Happy Birthday to Paul Powell!

Democracy Now! currently accepting applications for two positions: director of finance and administration and human resources manager. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.

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