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Meeting the Minister

In 2011 while preparing to deliver a TEDx talk in Athens, I recall thinking I had taken on a Herculean task in addressing the topic of hope in the most hopeless country in Europe. Until I saw the title of the speaker directly before me. Yianis Varoufakis delivered an address entitled “A Modest Proposal for Transforming Europe.” It was anything but modest. He was an economic advisor and academic back then. He is now Greece’s new minister of finance and the architect of the economic platform that swept the left-wing Syriza party to election victory.

A commanding physical presence with an exaggerated self-confidence, he took the stage and delivered a scathing indictment of the European debt crisis describing it as a comedy of errors that would end spectacularly badly. He believed then and has quickly confirmed since being sworn in as minister that the common currency has created a Hobbesian war of all against all, denouncing European Federalism and a policy of austerity that would only prolong the crisis and extract an enormous human toll. Reflecting on his talk through the prism of hindsight and Syriza’s emphatic victory, his worldview serves as an amuse bouche of the economic policy reforms the fledging Greek government will attempt to enact.

While it is difficult to predict how the new prime minister and political wunderkind Alexis Tsipras will deliver on his populist and fundamentally incompatible promise to abandon austerity while keeping the Euro or how Yianis Varoufakis will translate economic theory into practice while averting even an accidental Grexit one thing is certain. The financial and political storm awaiting them will not be the first time the country’s leaders face gale force winds of madness and postulations of impending catastrophe. Greece has been here before. If Greeks have learned anything it is that pessimism goes hand-in-hand with an ingrained resilience in the face of adversity. At pivotal moments in their history, Greeks have overcome overwhelming odds and know all too well what it means to have great powers intervene in sovereign economic and domestic policy. This may partially explain why the country remains a labyrinth of cronyism, nepotism and a systemically corrupt bureaucratic and civic condition. No one trusts anyone. Not institutions, foreign powers or even each other.

Enter the populist.

The exigencies of modern European nationalism suggest Syriza’s victory is but the 21st century equivalent to Greece’s 19th century battle for independence. The 1821 Greek War of Independence liberated Greece from the iron fisted Ottoman Empire, and was the first in a succession of nationalistic battles for independence that swept through Eastern Europe, buoyed by the promise of the American and French Revolutions as well as the failure of the European order of the day. Perhaps Greece has again launched but the first wave of contemporary populism seeking economic independence from a failed United States of Europe that by most accounts has vanquished the idealism of a Pax Europa dream.

Syriza won by framing their campaign on the resiliency of Greek DNA to confront the failed leadership of an entire political class. They now have the opportunity to redirect both the internal and external compass of their country. While Lord Byron is absent from this battle, only in times of war have the Greek people endured such profound economic hardship. Perhaps this explains the victory of populism in Greece that may very well launch a thousand ships of populism across Europe.

Brussels and Berlin ignore the parallels at their own peril.

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