Yanis Varoufakis: “I don’t believe there’s any upside for anyone from Brexit”

The Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) is a pan-European, cross-border movement of democrats launched in February 2016 by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.

The local chapter – known as a ‘spontaneous collective’ – is hosting Varoufakis at the Crescent Arts Centre this evening for a sold out discussion chaired by William Crawley (who also interviewed the economist on his lunchtime Talkback show). The event was live streamed (the audio stabilises for the main interview and discussion).

DiEM25 brings together a range of political traditions – Green, radical left and liberal voices – and their common belief is that the European Union is disintegrating.

Europeans are losing their faith in the possibility of European solutions to European problems. At the same time as faith in the EU is waning, we see a rise of misanthropy, xenophobia and toxic nationalism. If this development is not stopped, we fear a return to the 1930s … The EU needs to become a realm of shared prosperity, peace and solidarity for all Europeans. We must act quickly, before the EU disintegrates.”

Speaking to Yanis Varoufakis this afternoon, I asked whether he saw any economic opportunities or upsides of Brexit for Northern Ireland?

“I don’t believe there’s any upside for anyone from Brexit. I am very pessimistic about Brexit. The only optimism we can have is regarding the way we can ameliorate the effects of Brexit.

“The notion that Britannia will rule the waves and there will be successful attempts to create new free trade agreements with Donald Trump’s America and with China etc: these are delusions.”

Asked about European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans’ recent comments that Ireland “must resist the temptation to start parallel, bilateral talks with London … [which would be] playing into the hands of the Brits who are trying to play off one country against the other”, Varoufakis said that Ireland “is in a difficult spot”.

“Ireland is part of a block that has to negotiate collectively with Britain. My great fear is that there will be no negotiations. There will be a semblance of negotiation.

“I know this from personal experience: you can’t negotiate with Brussels. You negotiate for the right to negotiate and then you don’t negotiate about anything meaningful.

He described the UK Prime Minister’s desires around a single market and immigration in order to keep Ireland border check free as “false promises that she’ll never be able to keep – there is no way that she can achieve that”.

If he was drafted in as the Finance Minister in the NI Executive [Ed – stranger things could happen post 2 March?!] what actions would he take, given the restrictions on Northern Ireland’s voice within the UK and the negotiations?

“Take a look at the map of Ireland. You have a small island that has to develop an economic policy for development that is common in the north and the south. London doesn’t care about Northern Ireland.

“I fully appreciate and I respect the Unionist psychological need to be part of Britain. But your economy should be developed in a manner that creates synergies with the south and takes advantage of the opportunities that Ireland has as an island.”

Answering another question about taking steps to prevent harm around Brexit, he suggested that Theresa May should overcome her ‘Brexit at all costs’ fixation.

“My view is that a sensible small ‘c’ conservative solution would be for Britain, immediately after triggering Article 50, to file for an EEA/Norway-style agreement for six or seven years to create a space of time so that there can be sensible discussion outside the constraints of the electoral cycle of the next [few] years.”

He reckons that an EEA/Norway agreement could be successfully put in place if the UK used “the only philosophically strong argument in favour of Brexit … restoring sovereignty to the House of Commons”.

However, Varoufakis feels that the current MPs at Westminster do not have an appropriate mandate: “When they were elected they didn’t know Brexit was going ahead. Give the next parliament an opportunity to have this discussion.”

Amanda Ferguson – who’ll be a panellist at Slugger’s eve of polling day Big Election Punt on Wednesday 1 March – asked Varoufakis what advice he would give to Northern Ireland’s left wing parties who are accused of spending a lot of time attacking each other rather than attacking the right.

“Watch Life of Brian again because the opening scene is exactly the one you described. The Judean People’s Front versus the Liberation Front of Judea. We in the left are … a bit like the Christians, dividing and multiplying in many sects. It’s about time to overcome this.

“This is what DiEM25 is all about: creating a broad alliance between not just leftists, but also with progressive conservatives, with liberals, with sensible people who want to overcome this infinite capacity of human nature to create a mess out of something that could be handled quite rationally and humanely.”

He wouldn’t take the credit that some others attribute to him for convincing Sinn Féin that they had made a mistake over supporting welfare reform and causing their surprising post-Derry ard fheis U-turn.

“I couldn’t possibly say anything of the sort. Whenever I go I talk to friends and comrades and people who are on opposite sides of the political spectrum with the single objective to find common ground and to create mutual advantage where it is possible.”

Varoufakis was finance minister in Greece for just over 5 months, resigning in the wake of the bailout referendum which he opposed. The referendum was caused by troika of Greek lenders – the IMF, the ECB and the European Commission – refused to consider a new fiscal and reform program for Greece and instead demanded that the Greek government implemented the old more onerous one.

If he was to have his time again as a Greek finance minister, is there any small thing he would change?

“I would have brought on the clash with the Troika earlier, instead of waiting until the end of June, giving them an opportunity to close down the banks at the time their choosing.”

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.