Political meetings in Belfast pubs are nothing new. Just a few minutes’ walk (and 220 years) away from where the United Irishmen plotted their republican rebellion, another group of ideologically-committed Europeanists have come together to discuss their own plans for an uprising.
I’m in the Sunflower Pub, a frequent haunt of Belfast’s lefties and politicos. About 50 people, most of them members of the new pan-European political movement DiEM25, are sitting around, some drinking tea, others beer. At the top table, Greece’s ‘rock star’ former Minister of Finance is finishing a pint.
Yanis Varoufakis describes himself as an “economics professor, quietly writing obscure academic texts for years, until thrust onto the public scene”. Outside of academia, almost no one had heard of Varoufakis when he was appointed to the radical left-wing Syriza government after their shock electoral victory in January 2015. He only served as Minister for six months, eventually resigning in protest over his Prime Minister’s capitulation to the Troika. After that, he has dropped off the casual observer’s radar somewhat, only popping up now and then to be interviewed in the media.
However, behind the scenes, he has been hard at work. Not only has he has written three books since his brief foray into Greek government, but in 2016 he launched DiEM25 (the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025). DiEM25 is a transnational body with the core aim of achieving a new, democratic constitution for the European Union by the year 2025. The first stage in this process is the establishment of DiEM25 Spontaneous Collectives (DSCs) across the EU. This is Varoufakis’ first visit to Northern Ireland since the launch of the Belfast DSC in February last year.
“Passion is back in politics, but not in the way we wanted it,” Varoufakis begins, a less than oblique reference to the rising tide of neo-fascist nationalist xenophobia across Europe. In his native Greece, for instance, Golden Dawn, widely considered to be a neo-Nazi political party, is sitting at almost 10% in the latest opinion polls.
For the few months he was Minister of Finance, Varoufakis famously ditched the ministerial cars and opted to ride his motorbike through the streets of Athens. Nowadays, as he travels across Europe fomenting his leftist alternative to the populist right, his main mode of transport is the aeroplane. “The good thing about being in an aeroplane all the time,” he says, “is that it all comes together. What you experience here in Belfast may seem to you exceptional and unique compared to what the French experience, or the Germans, but it really is not. We are all experiencing different manifestations of the same predicament. And it is only when we realise the sameness of our predicament that we have a chance of genuinely overcoming it.”
Varoufakis’ vision is nothing short of ambitious. His dream is for DiEM25 candidates to contest every European Parliament seat in the May 2019 election, on a shared manifesto. In some respects, his ideas are realising – last weekend he was in Paris, meeting with the French Greens, Communists and Benoît Hamon (the Socialist Party’s failed 2017 Presidential candidate) about running joint DiEM25 candidates. But in other areas, it all still appears fantastical – “How is it financed?” is the first question from the audience. “I have no idea,” he replies. Varoufakis is not oblivious to the scepticism with which many view his ambition. “Some people say this is pie in the sky,” he admits, “Good. We need some pie in the sky”.
The questions from the floor following his talk are mostly uneventful. Just one manages to palpably change the generally relaxed atmosphere of the room. A women challenges Julian Assange’s support for DiEM25. This clearly touches a nerve with Varoufakis, who goes into a detailed explanation of why he believes the rape allegations against Assange are politically motivated. Assange is “a very difficult man”, he concludes, but it is the “duty of all progressives to defend him”.
After his address and the Q&A, the room clears. I’m given five minutes to conduct a quick interview. He is charismatic and intense, never once breaking eye contact.
I begin by asking him about the failure of the left to capitalise on the 2008 crash. If the left has the answers, why is the right now on the rise across Europe? And why was it left to ex-investment banker Emmanuel Macron – the archetypal neoliberal – to defeat Front National in last year’s Presidential election? Is the left not capable of defeating neo-fascism?
“Well, we’ve been terrible, haven’t we? We of the left, we have failed spectacularly,” he responds. The key to winning power, he says, is “not by shifting to the centre” like Blair, “but by becoming better at articulating our position”, like Corbyn. Success, he believes, will flow from an effective narrative.
“The great enemy is the couch,” Varoufakis explains. It’s too easy to be apathetic, to accept the status quo. He contends that the leadership of the likes of Macron, Merkel and Varadkar offers us a “Faustian pact”, whereby we sign up to the “regressive gradualism” of insignificant EU reforms at the cost of continuing neoliberalism. What DiEM25 offers, he argues, is a genuine alternative of meaningful EU democratic reform.
Obviously, all debate about the European Union here is overshadowed by the impending uncertainty of Brexit. Varoufakis clearly sees the vote for Brexit as the symptom of an essentially English affliction. In the post-colonial world, England had lost its place. Devolution had meant it had even lost control over Scotland and Wales. And the Good Friday Agreement “ended the pretension of the British state to be the colonial power in Northern Ireland”; the English no longer “had the Irish under their boot”. The English working class felt “discarded in their own country”.
“What did the English have?” he asks, “They had no Assembly, they had no Parliament, they had no jobs, they had no industry. And it was very easy for a right-wing Brexiteer narrative to develop on the basis of ‘we want our country back’, without, of course, any kind of coherence as to who ‘we’ are and what country we want back. Do we want England back? Do we want Scotland as well? Do we want Northern Ireland?”
Despite his own opposition to Brexit, he still considers the left-wingers in favour of it (‘Lexiteers’) his “comrades”. But he argues that they are not following in the spirit of traditional leftism, which should be focused on the transformation of the state, not its dissolution. This is why he backs the EU, despite its many flaws – in his eyes, advocating for its dissolution is nothing short of anarchic.
After Brexit, Varoufakis seems keen to maintain links with the UK, and Northern Ireland particularly. He speaks of Labour, Sinn Féin, progressive loyalists and the SDLP (“or what’s left of it”, he adds, prompting laughter from the audience) banding together under the DiEM25 banner. There is talk of DiEM25 campaigning in the UK during the 2019 European Parliament elections, and running simulation elections in Northern Ireland, as a “gesture of solidarity”.
I’m well aware that my allocated five minutes are up, but I ask one final question: What is his message to the young people of Northern Ireland? “You are not alone,” he answers, “All young people, whether they are in Greece, in the Balkans, in France, in Germany, across Europe, they all feel uncertain. They all feel that my generation have bequeathed them with deep uncertainty, a precarious existence, a dearth of good jobs, too much debt. And unless they reach out across borders, across ethnic divides, to create a progressive alliance so that they can take their lives back, as young Europeans, they will be regurgitating and reproducing the conditions of the crisis.”
Leaving the Sunflower, I check my phone. There’s a notification from BBC News. Czechia’s Trump-supporting, anti-immigration president has been re-elected. His rival was a pro-European academic.
Varoufakis and his European progressives are certain to have an uphill struggle in the coming years. Because a radical populist ideology is indeed in the ascendency. But it’s not the left.
Jack O’Dwyer-Henry is an 18-year-old political activist and a co-founder of Challenges NI.
You can follow him on Twitter @JackODwyerHenry.