Austerity by design: The Boston Review looks at ‘the cost of negotiations’ through Adults in The Room

Yanis Varoufakis on Question Time / BBC

Extracts from  the Boston Review article —  In the spring of 2015, a series of debt negotiations briefly claimed a share of the world’s attention that normally goes only to events where celebrities give each other prizes. Syriza, a  left-wing party, had stormed into office in Greece on a promise to challenge the consortium of international creditors that had effectively ruled the country since its debt crisis broke out in 2010.

For years, austerity, deregulation, the rolling back of labour rights and public services, the rule of money over society, had been facts of life. Now suddenly they were live political questions. It was riveting.

Syriza was represented in these negotiations by its finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis.  His radical but rigorous proposals for a different kind of Europe—one based on meeting human needs rather than rigid financial criteria—offered a daily rebuke to the old refrain “there is no alternative.”

The drama was clear, but the stakes were a little obscure. Why did it matter if Greece stayed in the euro? Orthodox economic theory, after all, gives little role for money or finance. What matters are real wants and real resources, for which money is just a convenient yardstick. University of Chicago economist John Cochrane probably spoke for much of the profession when he asked why it made any more sense to talk about Greece leaving the euro than about Greece leaving the metric system.

Greece today has 20 percent unemployment—the highest in Europe. It would be higher still if it weren’t for the loss of a tenth of the working-age population to emigration. The most recent IMF projections say that unemployment will remain in the double digits well into the 2040s. Multiple rounds of bailouts and “reform” packages left its GDP a quarter below pre-crisis levels, and the IMF projects it will not regain the lost ground until around 2030.

And yet the Greek government is committed to sending 3.5 percent of national income abroad as tribute to its creditors each year, for the indefinite future. The battle by Varoufakis and his Syriza comrades against this intolerable state of affairs is, even in defeat, a rare spot of genuine heroism in today’s discouraging political landscape. There is plenty to question and criticize. But any political movement that hopes to reassert the values of European social democracy against its current legatees will have much to learn from his example, as well as his books.

The Eurozone’s crisis can only be understood through the political choices of its central bankers. This is the most important lesson of Adults in the Room.

Among the lessons in Varoufakis’s story is that real power does not always lie where titles and organizational charts say it should.

The crisis saw an abrupt halt to cross-border financial flows. The result was a steep decline in lending, in asset values, and soon in real activity. With incomes falling steeply and interest rates rising, the debts incurred by a number of governments—Greece, Portugal, Ireland, but also Spain and  Italy—threatened to become unpayable. The deep cuts in public spending these countries were forced to make in response—along with business-friendly reforms to boost their “competitiveness”—were an economic disaster, plunging millions of people into a new world of deprivation and insecurity.


Governments that wish to maintain a stable position in the international system would instead have to focus on two goals. First, to maintain an acceptable balance on the financial account, they would have to maintain the confidence of the markets; and second, to maintain an acceptable balance on the trade account, they would have to keep wages down and productivity up. The narrowing of policy space for national governments was, arguably, not a bug but a feature—even the central one.

But reality isn’t so simple, for a number of reasons. First, the role of exchange rates in stabilizing trade flows has been greatly exaggerated. It is simply not the case that Greece, for instance, could “pay its own way” before the euro by devaluing its currency, as is sometimes suggested. In fact, despite frequent devaluations Greece ran trade deficits continuously for decades before entering the euro.

As Varoufakis points out, the last time the country had a trade surplus was under German occupation in 1943.

Second, financial flows often shift for reasons that have nothing to do with the policies of particular governments, but as in the case of peripheral Europe, on a range of wildly unpredictable floods and droughts of money from alternately credulous and panicky markets, which depend more on financial conditions in the world’s financial centers than anything happening in the receiving countries.

At times Varoufakis’s narrative has the feel of a horror story where the protagonist tries to operate by the rules of normal life, only to gradually discover the conspiracy all around him.

In January of 2015, when Varoufakis entered the stage, Greece was already on its third loan negotiations with its official creditors. The first one had swapped the Greek government’s debt to private lenders elsewhere in Europe with debt to other European governments, to the ECB and to the IMF. The money loaned to the Greek government had been used to repay loans that private lenders were unable or unwilling to roll over. It was a bailout—but for banks in Germany, France, and elsewhere, not for Greece. From the point of view of the Greek state, their debts to private lenders had simply been replaced with debts to official lenders.

‘We were dealing with creditors who did not really want their money back.’ The real issue was power.

While the bailouts did not reduce the amount of debt owed by the Greek state, they did change its character. While private lenders are primarily interested in getting their money back, public authorities often have a broader set of interests in the behaviour of their debtors. The new loans to Greece were governed by a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) laying out a set of policy changes the Greek government had to make to receive the money. The loans were to be doled out in installments, with each new payment contingent on the “conditionalities” being satisfied.

By the time Syriza took office, the Greek state had already agreed to a long list of “reforms”—from banning collective bargaining to loosening restrictions on milk freshness—and had surrendered control over key government functions, including tax collection, to officials appointed from outside.

Varoufakis describes the arrangement as “neocolonial,” and with reason. In the nineteenth century, turning over tax collection to European authorities was a penalty imposed on defaulting governments from China to Turkey to Egypt, often as a first step toward outright subjugation. The central issue under dispute in the first month of negotiations was whether the new government would continue to be bound by the agreements signed by the previous one.

The negotiations themselves took place in the Eurogroup, an informal working group that included all euro-area finance ministers as well as representatives of the three troika bodies. Within these meetings, the dominant figures were Dijsselbloem, as president of the Eurogroup, and the  German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

Austerity was supposed to be just a means to stabilize payments by Grece to its creditors. But what if the actual goal was austerity, and the crisis and unpayable debt just convenient openings to pursue it?

Several lessons are clear from Varoufakis’s story. First, real power does not always lie where titles and organizational charts say it should. Neither Schäuble nor Dijsselbloem has, on paper, any more authority over the Greek debt than any of the other fifteen finance ministers. Nonetheless, their control of the proceedings is seldom questioned and never seriously challenged.

In one striking scene, described by Varoufakis in “Adults in The Room”, Pierre Moscovici (representing the European Commission) initially agrees to replacing the existing MoU with language he and Varoufakis draft together and promises to get the new text through the Eurogroup. But the moment he presents their new language “in the room,” Dijsselbloem swats it down. And “in a voice that quavered with dejection,” Moscovici meekly assents: “Whatever the Eurogroup president says.”

A second lesson is that the rigidity or flexibility of rules is a decision variable for whoever is in charge of enforcing them—and the more opaque and indirect the decision-making process, the more space for discretion there is. In a dramatic scene near the end, Dijsselbloem announces that the Eurogroup will depart from its til-then ironclad principle of unanimity and issue an official statement over Greece’s veto. When Varoufakis asks how that is allowed, he gets this response from the EU secretariat: “The Eurogroup does not exist in law. . . . and therefore its president is not legally bound.”

Third, arguments are seldom decided, or even debated, on the merits. Varoufakis’s main activity during his months in office seems to be putting together detailed “non-papers” (the EU’s suggestive term for unofficial proposals) on possible resolutions, which the other side simply ignores.

In Berlin,  Varoufakis is invited to a dinner by a couple of leading figures in the Social Democratic Party. The Social Democrats are Merkel’s junior coalition partners but, they assure him, they see the insanity of what is being done to Greece and they want to support him in his struggles with their government.

The dinner must be a secret of course—no aides, no press—so they can strategize together. Then, at the restaurant, one of the Germans’ phone rings. He hands it to Varoufakis: it is ECB president Mario Draghi, calling to say that assistance for Greece’s banks is being cut off.

The negotiations which dominated Varoufakis’s five months in office were ostensibly aimed at a long-term resolution in which the Greek state could continue servicing its debts while getting the resources it needed to foster economic growth and development. But it would be a mistake to see the stakes as being whether the debtor could continue borrowing, or the creditors would get their money back.

For one thing, Greece already had a primary surplus—its revenues were more than enough to fund expenses other than debt service costs. No one on either side contemplated a return to primary deficits. So the funds being doled out or withheld by the creditors were not in any sense financing the activities of the Greek government. Quite literally, the creditors were lending Greece money only so that it could keep paying back those same creditors. In effect, the Greek state was paying a substantial tribute to its creditors each year for the privilege of remaining in debt to them. 

Privatization, weaker unions, more employer control over hiring and firing, skimpier pensions go well beyond what we normally think of as the remit of a central bank.

The circularity of this arrangement in financial terms makes it clear that the financial side was never what mattered. As Varoufakis shrewdly notes, “we were dealing with creditors who did not really want their money back.” The real issue was power—the power the debt gave the creditors to dictate the Greek government, and the power they had to punish Greece if it didn’t comply.

Concretely, this meant, on the one hand, acceptance of the existing MoU and everything it implied, including even deeper austerity, fire-sale privatization of everything owned by the public, a permanent end to collective bargaining, and steep cuts in public and private wages; and on the other hand, the ECB’s ability to shut down the Greek banking system.

We will return to the second point—the key strategic role of the ECB. As to the first: why were the European authorities so insistent that Greece surrender control over domestic policy and accept the ultra-liberal program of the MoU? Varoufakis suggests two possible answers.

At some points, Varouofakis  argues that the MoU and the larger austerity agenda were embraced opportunistically by politicians who did not want to admit that the first bailout had handed over public funds to their own banks. Blaming Greek profligacy was the politically easier cover story. “The sole reason that the IMF and EU were asphyxiating us [was] because they did not have what it took to confess the error” of the earlier bailouts, he says. Austerity, in this telling, is not a goal in itself, but merely “a morality play pressed into the service of legitimizing cynical wealth transfers from the have-nots to the haves during times of crisis, in which debtors are sinners who must be made to pay for their misdeeds.” 

During the debt negotiations, one of the rare moments of disunity on the creditor side is a shouting match between Schäuble and the French finance minister Michel Sapin. Varoufakis, on the other side of the room, asks someone what is going on. “Wolfgang said that he wants the troika in Paris,” is the reply. For German conservatives such as Schäuble, Greece is indeed just somewhere to make a start; the real target is the larger and stronger welfare states of Europe—and ultimately their own working class. 

If Varoufakis didn’t want to take Schäuble’s word for the real stakes, he might have listened to the various representatives of the troika who repeatedly made clear that “labour reform”—specifically, a permanent ban on collective bargaining—was one of their red lines. Or he might have looked at the ECB’s record as an enforcer of austerity in Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain, years before Syriza came into office.

Stories like these—and the book is full of them—suggest that the creditors were not just looking for a politically palatable way to avoid responsibility for their earlier failures. They were sincere and consistent ideologues, striving to remake Europe in the model of an idealized free-market society. Varoufakis recounts these stories masterfully, yet curiously they never seem to shake his view that a mutually beneficial deal is just around the corner.

If Varoufakis’ account of his opponents’ motives is somewhat unsatisfactory, his account of their means is lucid and compelling. One of the central points is that the European Central Bank is a thoroughly political actor. Its decisions to buy or not buy government debt, to lend or not lend to banks, are always described in terms of statutory rules, but in practice, the rules mean what the ECB wants them to mean.

Perhaps the most dramatic expression of this was Draghi’s 2012 interventions to bring down rates on euro-area governments’ bonds—something the ECB’s charter was understood to explicitly forbid. In Greece, of course, the rules were bent the other way.

Far from being apolitical, the ECB’s huge discretionary power over when to enforce its rules and when to circumvent them . . . make it the most political central bank in the world.

The ECB was also the only one of the three troika institutions with direct coercive power. The other creditors could, of course, refuse to extend new loans. But by 2015, the funds Greece was receiving from its official loans were being used entirely to service their existing debt. So a threat to cut off lending would just mean that if Greece defaulted on its loans, it would have to default on its loans.

The ECB, on the other hand, had the power to withdraw liquidity assistance from Greek banks, forcing them to shut down. Indeed, even the threat that assistance might be withdrawn was enough to provoke a bank run. This was the creditors’ only real stick, but it was a big one.

Dijsselbloem, who uses his first meeting with Varoufakis to deliver an ultimatum (“the current program must be completed or there is nothing else!”), clearly expects that the mere threat of a bank shutdown will end all resistance. As Varoufakis observes, “Experience has taught functionaries operating on behalf of Europe’s deep establishment [that] . . . government ministers, prime ministers, even the president of France, buckle at the first whiff of . . . the ECB’s big guns.”


Suppose the Greek government had refused to continue negotiations after February 24. What would have happened then? The ECB and/or the Bank of Greece would have announced an immediate end to emergency liquidity assistance (ELA) to Greek banks. The pretext would have been that the Greek government debt held by the banks, being rated below investment grade, was not acceptable as collateral, and that a waiver from this requirement could only be granted if an IMF program was in place and Greece was in compliance with it.

Without ELA, the Greek banks would have shut down and available cash would have had to be carefully rationed, just as eventually happened in June. At that point—as did not happen in June—the Syriza government would have activated its “deterrent.” The three key pieces of this were, first, a unilateral write-down or “haircut” of Greek bonds held by the ECB; second, the introduction of a parallel payment system, including both a system of electronic payments and certificates against future tax liabilities that could circulate in the place of cash; and emergency legislation to replace the head of the Bank of Greece, an establishment politician hostile to Syriza who had been appointed in the final days of the previous government.


But a Greek non-capitulation was directly threatening to conservative politicians elsewhere in Europe, especially those facing challenges from the left. As Varoufakis says, “What mattered to them was their authority, and that was being challenged by a leftist government whose success at negotiating a new deal for its country was the creditors’ greatest nightmare, as it might give ideas to other Europeans.”

Spanish finance minister Luis de Guindos directly confirms this at one point, telling Varoufakis that his position in the Eurogroup meetings was dictated by fear that any Syriza success would give ammunition to his government’s opponents in the leftwing party Podemos. Conversely, as Varoufakis observes, a hardline treatment of Greece served “as a deterrent to any other politician in Spain, Italy, Portugal or indeed France, who might be tempted” to challenge the reigning orthodoxy.

It would be easy to cast Varoufakis as naïve, but he isn’t. Rather, he is a believer in the European project.

In short, Greece had to be made an example of so people in the rest of Europe wouldn’t get ideas. Varoufakis is bluntly told at one point that austerity is necessary not to improve Greece’s repayment prospects, but “to demonstrate to Paris what is in store for France if they refuse to enact structural reforms.” Or as the Slovak finance minster—“Schäuble’s keenest cheerleader in the Eurogroup”—put it, “We had to be tough on Greece because of their Greek Spring.” But this dynamic might also have worked in Greece’s favour if they had stuck to their guns. Rather than risk an example of successful noncompliance, the creditors might have compromised instead”.