Adults in the Room by Yanis Varoufakis (Review)

By Edward Langley

On the face of it, an account detailing the gruelling and often complex negotiations between indebted Greece and it’s creditors doesn’t spring out as beach-time reading. But don’t judge a book by its cover, even if the EU flag is blazoned onto it. You could be forgiven for thinking that just like the European Union this book is boring and technical, a purely academic book to be pored over by the occasional geek and ultimately locked away into the vault of history. You would be mightily wrong. Adults in the Room has the plot of a Shakespearian tragedy and the page-turn appeal of a thriller. The fact that it all actually happened and was captured so insightfully and intelligently by the protagonist and author is what makes it stand out as the best political book of the year. For it turns out that Yanis’s job when he was sent off to Brussels proved remarkably Herculean. His task was to convince the troika that what they were doing to Greece was not just cruel or overly punishing but simply unproductive to their cause, and persuade them to grant the Greeks with much needed debt relief to get their economy back on its feet.

It all lies on Yanis’s simple argument: the Greek state is bankrupt, and the solution to its bankruptcy is not to keep shovelling piles of new debt on top of its already unpayable debt. More debt is not what the Greeks need, nor are the stringent requirements imposed upon Greece by the IMF that commit the economy to shrinking under strict austerity measures, at a time when it should obviously be trying to grow. It is a modern form of debtor’s prison- there is no way out for the Greek economy which is basically strapped to the floor, being force-fed loans by external examiners prodding it with a stick and waiting for something to happen. Now this sounds absurd, why would the people in charge allow Greece to be humiliated in this way? Are they evil and masochistic, or simply stupid? The enforced austerity can be pinpointed to neoliberal dogma, but this doesn’t explain the logic in piling debt onto insolvent nations, that’s just fiscal irresponsibility. The answer relates to the fact that if the troika granted Greece debt relief instead of punishing their pension pots, then other countries like Spain and Portugal would want to follow suit. Suddenly then, the German and French banks that prop up these ‘deficit countries’ have to get their hands dirty, and that’s not what they want.

Reading of this book should not just be essential for Theresa May or any member of the Brexit negotiating team, but to anyone interested in the real workings of politics. For Yanis finds out the hard way the dark, ugly truth that lies within the top tiers of the international elite- there is no single shred of European solidarity, nor any slight will to help fellow humans, but instead a ravenous hunger for self-preservation. Power is what matters here- not people.

Alas, not all of the troika’s people that Yanis encounters come across as so Machiavellian- some privately express an interest in helping the Greek economy, but they are either put in their place by the powers above them or when push comes to shove they prove to be useless. One standout example occurs when the European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Pierre Moscovici, who had expressed sympathy to the Greek cause and some willingness to aid the negotiation process that had reached an impasse, ends up humiliatingly undermined by Jeroen Dijsselbloem, President of the Eurogroup. The irony is that if anyone has a democratic mandate in the EU, it is certainly not Dijsselbloem whose ‘Eurogroup’ is not just opaque but completely unelected, so for him to boss around Moscovici who actually was elected within the European Commission shows what a farcical and hierarchical structure presides in those endless clinical white corridors.

The title of the book was born out of the thick of one negotiation between Christine Lagarde and Yanis, wherein Lagarde exclaimed in apparent despair that there needed to be ‘adults in the room’… Of course there needed to be adults in the room, that is why two qualified and intelligent people were the ones appointed to have the discussion, instead of children or teenagers. However I was surprised on reading this eye-opening thriller of a book that there were in fact any adults involved on Europe’s side. The behaviour of the EU ministers and technocrats who lurk in the lifeless offices far from resembles anything ‘mature’ or ‘adult’. From Wolfgang Schauble’s uncompromising stubbornness to Jeroen Dijsselbloem’s unwavering hostility while there were (and still are) Greek citizens suffering in poverty, it is much easier to see the troika officials that Yanis deals with as difficult and concerned purely with themselves and with preserving what concentrated power they are clinging onto.

I’d be worried about ruining the ending, but we all can guess what happened. For still in 2017 Greece hasn’t yet escaped debtor’s prison. The European elite won the battle not on the logic of their arguments, nor from any democratic mandate, for they had neither. The reason was, like impatient adults demanding that their children fall in line, they won because ‘they say so’.

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