Happy to be hated?

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

Why Is a Hated Man Speaking for Greece?

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was London bureau chief for Bloomberg News and is the author of “Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable.”
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Most of us have been in a business or strategy meeting where the outcome turned on the personalities in the room, rather than the logic or merits of the subject under discussion. The latest twists in Greece's negotiations with its creditors suggest a similarly unhelpful dynamic is at work among euro area finance ministers. The solution might be to change the cast, rather than keep hoping the drama will have a happy ending.

Greece's Fiscal Odyssey

Yanis Varoufakis, Greece's finance minister, was variously called a time-waster, a gambler and an amateur at Friday's meeting of the euro zone finance chiefs. Here's what Varoufakis tweeted about himself on Sunday, channeling U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt from 1936:

Roosevelt was trying to win an election, railing against what he described as "the old enemies of peace -- business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering." That context makes Varoufakis's commentary upon his own situation both wildly inappropriate and deeply saddening; he still seems inclined to treat his creditors as sworn enemies.

When the new Greek government took power in January and Varoufakis became finance chief, much was made of his academic background in game theory. But this isn't a game. All too often, the Greek finance minister sounds like he's focused only on winning over his domestic audience. His fellow finance ministers across Europe have become sufficiently annoyed that they no longer seem willing to negotiate with him at all.

The Greek people are pretty clear about what they want. A weekend poll by Kappa Research for the To Vima newspaper showed 72.9 percent want to stay in the euro, 71.9 percent see reaching a deal as the best solution for the country's woes, and 68.8 percent view exiting the euro as a real danger. A separate survey by Alco for Proto Thema newspaper showed similar results; it also indicated a 55 percent approval rating for Varoufakis even as 52 percent said they're dissatisfied with the government. If only he was as popular with his peers, who happen to control the euro purse strings and who therefore have more sway over Greece's destiny than its electorate.

There's a theory making the rounds in the blogosphere that Varoufakis will prove useful as a scapegoat to be jettisoned and blamed once the Greek government has reneged on its election promises to satisfy the demands of its lenders. That seems like a dangerous game; it assumes a deal can be reached between the current interlocutors, which seems increasingly unlikely.

If, by his own admission, Varoufakis is unanimously hated by those he would seek to persuade, today's announcement that the government has reshuffled its negotiating team should come as welcome news. Deputy Foreign Minister Euclid Tsakalotos will coordinate a team with newly assigned responsibilities; Greece will get the new voices it needs speaking on its behalf and, as my Bloomberg News colleagues in Athens report today, Varoufakis will have his wings clipped. Time and money are running out; let's hope introducing new faces can get Greece out of its current stalemate. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net