The Rumble in Riga: How the EU Lost Patience With Varoufakis

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Greece's Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis
Varoufakis borrowed a line from a 1936 speech by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “They are unanimous in their hate for me; and I welcome their hatred,” Varoufakis said on his Twitter account. Photographer: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

When Yanis Varoufakis warned his fellow euro-area finance chiefs of the dangers of pushing his government in Athens too far, Peter Kazimir snapped.

Kazimir, Slovakia’s finance minister, launched a volley of criticism at his Greek counterpart, releasing months of pent-up frustrations among the group at the political novice. They’d had enough of what they called the economics professor’s lecturing style and his failure to make good on his pledges.

The others at the April 24 gathering in Riga, Latvia, took their cue from Kazimir -- they called Varoufakis a time waster and said he would never get a deal if he persisted with such tactics. The criticism continued after the meeting: eight participants broke decorum to describe what happened behind closed doors. A spokesman for Varoufakis declined to respond to their descriptions.

“All the ministers told him: this can’t go on,” Spain’s Luis de Guindos said the following day. “The feeling among the 18 was exactly the same. There was no kind of divergence.” The others who provided an account of the meeting in interviews asked not to be named, citing the privacy of the talks.

Varoufakis’s isolation raises the stakes, which include a potential default and keeping the euro indivisible. After more than five years as a ward of the European Union, Greece is virtually out of cash. The aid pipeline is shut until Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, elected Jan. 25 promising to push back against budget cuts, bends to EU policy demands.

Alluding to the political conflict, Varoufakis borrowed a line from a 1936 speech by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “They are unanimous in their hate for me; and I welcome their hatred,” Varoufakis said on his Twitter account on Sunday. The quotation is “close to my heart (& reality) these days,” he wrote.

Looming Payments

The breakdown came as Greece heads into a week of heightening fiscal tension. The first of two International Monetary Fund payments is due on May 6 and the government still doesn’t know if it has enough money to pay pensioners and state employees this week.

Varoufakis sought to squeeze aid from the rest of the euro area accepting the full slate of EU demands, a gambit rejected by the group’s leader, Jeroen Dijsselbloem.

Varoufakis described the talks as “intense” and said his country is ready to make “big compromises” for a deal.

“The cost of no solution would be enormous not only for us but also for all,” he said.

Varoufakis cut a lonely figure on Friday morning as he prepared for the meeting. The 53-year-old academic walked with no entourage through the lobby of the Radisson Blu Daugava Hotel clutching a mobile phone and a newspaper.

Pension Stalemate

In remarks to the assembled ministers, he defended protecting public pensions, a key sticking point in the negotiations. He threatened to walk away from talks if creditors pushed too hard.

When Dijsselbloem invited the group to respond, he was greeted by silence. He asked again, and Kazimir spoke up.

Varoufakis’s refusal to accept the conditions of its creditors particularly riled the Slovakian because his government has slashed the budget deficit and cracked down on tax evasion. His position also may have fallen on deaf ears among his hosts in Riga.

Latvia’s economy shrank by more than a fifth in 2008 and 2009 when the country was led by Valdis Dombrovskis, now vice president of the European Commission and a participant in the Friday meeting. Dombrovskis pushed through some of the world’s harshest austerity measures -- equivalent to 16 percent of gross domestic product. The Greek economy has shrunk by about a quarter since 2008.

Photo Shoot

Political gaffes have afflicted Varoufakis from the outset. He offended the Italian government, a potential ally, when he said Feb. 8 their country was close to bankruptcy. Most famously, he posed for a photo spread in Paris Match magazine, showing the minister and his wife on their roof terrace overlooking the Acropolis in Athens.

For any European governments sympathetic to the plight of Greeks, the picture made it harder to justify additional aid to their voters. The episode also hurt Varoufakis’s credibility and gave other ministers an easy way to needle him.

After his comments to the meeting in Riga, Varoufakis was approached by France’s Michel Sapin, a Socialist.

“I told him I had read Philosophie Magazine,” Sapin said, alluding to Varoufakis’s academic style. “It’s better than Paris Match.”

Varoufakis has the backing of a majority of Greeks, according to an Alco survey published in Proto Thema newspaper. Some 55 percent of respondents said they had a positive view of him, compared with 36 percent who said they viewed him negatively.

Still, the schadenfreude in ministers’ reactions was leavened with concern about the consequences of the policy deadlock.

Calls for Plan B

Greece needs to begin paying monthly salaries to civil servants and retirees on Monday, and faces a string of obligations leading up to a $770 million IMF payment on May 12.

Tsipras tried to bypass the finance ministers last week, who have to sign off on any aid disbursement, to make his case directly to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande at a summit in Brussels.

With the prospect of a default hanging over the session, Slovenia’s Dusan Mramor urged the group to consider a “plan B” to mitigate the fallout if negotiations fail. Others echoed his calls. In their public comments, EU Economic Commissioner Pierre Moscovici and De Guindos both said there was no plan B, while Dijsselbloem refused to comment on the prospect, saying it would only fuel speculation in the media.

“Any mention of a plan B is profoundly anti-European,” Varoufakis said in an interview with Euronews.

Before the session broke up and Dijsselbloem briefed the media, Varoufakis implored him to say that progress had been made toward a deal on releasing aid.

“There are still wide differences to bridge,” Dijsselbloem said, standing alongside European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, Moscovici, and head of the European Stability Mechanism Klaus Regling. “Responsibility mainly lies with Greek authorities.”

(An earlier version of this story corrected the spelling of Philosophie Magazine.)

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