When he served as the Greek finance minister – continuously butting heads with European leaders, particularly German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble – Yanis Varoufakis was feted as a David confronting Goliath and dismissed by many as a brainy theorist, toying with an economic community of more than 500 million people.
Deeply entrenched in the front lines of the Greek economic and financial crisis last year, the former economics professor blasted the European Union’s tough-love remedies with phrases such as “Ponzi austerity” and “fiscal waterboarding.”
Mr. Varoufakis, who served as finance minister in the left-of-center Syriza-led government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras from January 2015 until July 2015, played a key role in the frequently stormy negotiations with Greece’s lenders over the handling of the Greek debt crisis. He resigned a day after the July 5 referendum, when Greek voters rejected the country’s third bailout since 2010. He blasted the E.U. creditors’ decision to ignore the vote’s outcome as the European Union’s “democratic deficit.”
Now, Mr. Varoufakis is back in the headlines, this time as the initiator of the “Democracy in Europe Movement 2025,” or DiEM25. The left-wing protest movement, launched Tuesday, aims to challenge what the former Greek politician views as the undemocratic decision-making of the European Union – an institution he refers to as the “Brussels cartel.”
“It will certainly not be a one-man show.”
To launch the movement, Mr. Varoufakis chose the land of the leaders that gave him so much trouble last year. The kick-off event took place at the Volksbühne theater in Germany’s capital, Berlin.
It was also be streamed for those unable to attend the fully booked venue and aired by a number of broadcasters, including Germany’s international channel Deutsche Welle.
How exactly the movement is to operate remains to be seen. Croatian philosopher Srecko Horvat, who organized the event in Berlin, said it would “certainly not be a one-man show.” The movement, he told the Berlin Tagesspiegel newspaper, a sister publication of Handelsblatt, would “benefit from Mr. Varoufakis’ political capital” and ability to reach many Europeans.
One of the buzzwords in the DiEM25 debate is participatory democracy, which emphasizes citizens being directly involved in political decisions that affect their lives.
But political experts warn about the challenges of achieving such inclusion.
“Progressive left-wing participatory democratic movements have never won the streets,” Ulrike Guérot, founder and director of the European Democracy Lab at the European School of Governance in Berlin, told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “Jean Paul Sartre didn’t win over workers to the idea when he spoke at factories in the 1970s – they walked away. History has shown that participatory democracy can be risky and difficult to implement.”
The kick-off event attracted a wide range of activists, economic experts and politicians, including the Italian left-wing intellectual Toni Negri and the American economist James Galbraith as well as the British parliamentarian Caroline Lucas and Irish MEP Nessa Childers.
The Volksbühne theater, which translates “the people’s stage,” is also where activists in the former East Germany met to demand an end to the wall that divided Germany.
Whether the new political movement will turn into a political party, or compete in any European elections, is unclear. Ahead of the kick-off event, the group published a manifesto, outlining its fundamental principles. While praising certain achievements of the European Union, it provides a long list of grievances why the Brussels-based authority needs to be significantly reformed – or even replaced.
It is also critical of the power wielded by other European institutions such as the Eurogroup, the body of finance ministers from the euro zone, and Ecofin, which represents all finance ministers in the European Union.
“The European Union was an exceptional achievement, bringing together in peace European peoples speaking different languages, submersed in different cultures, proving that it was possible to create a shared framework of human rights across a continent that was, not long ago, home to murderous chauvinism, racism and barbarity,” authors of the manifesto wrote.
But the document is also strongly critical. It refers to a “highly political, top-down, opaque decision-making process” whose “purpose is to prevent Europeans from exercising democratic control over their money, working conditions and environment.” It goes on to claim that “the euro-zone economies are being marched off the cliff of competitive austerity, resulting in permanent recession in the weaker countries and low investment in the core countries.”
An immediate priority of the Varoufakis-led movement is full transparency in decision-making. It calls for live-streaming of meetings in European councils and the Eurogroup, as well as full disclosure of trade negotiations and European Central Bank minutes.
“Our medium-term goal is to convene a constitutional assembly where Europeans will deliberate on how to bring forward, by 2025, a fully-fledged European democracy, featuring a sovereign parliament that respects national self-determination and shares power with national parliaments, regional assemblies and municipal councils,” Mr. Varoufakis wrote in opinion piece published in Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
Is such a goal utopian? “Of course it is,” he wrote. “But no more so than the notion that the current European Union can survive its anti-democratic hubris and the gross incompetence fueled by its unaccountability.”
John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition, covering European sports and politics. Harald Schumann of Tagesspiegel, a sister publication of Handelsblatt, contributed to this story. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org