Europe needs people like Varoufakis, but it is stuck with Schäubles

Last week, the Brookings Institute in Washington DC hosted two discussions.

The first was with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

Schäuble was dressed in a business suit with an expensive-looking tie, a uniform that reflects the power and mindset of generations of financiers worldwide.

The second was a conversation with Yanis Varoufakis, the finance minister of Greece.

He was dressed in a jacket with slacks and no tie. Varoufakis represents the people of Greece, who elected his radical left-wing party Syriza after suffering a decline of GDP and rise in unemployment not seen since the Great Depression.

But the difference between these two men goes beyond a question of style.

Schäuble, with all the charisma of a nitpicking bookkeeper, showed no desire and little evidence of a capacity to argue on content.

He responded to criticism of his policies with shallow dogmatism that avoided details and never strayed from orthodox money-lender policy: pay or be damned.

Whenever someone suggested that Troika austerity policies might be part of the problem, he gave the impression that Greece is the problem of the Greeks, and that things were about to turn a corner when Varoufakis and his leftist cronies came to power.

That the Greek people had voted for Syriza to change a policy that they believed to be destroying their economy, and that democracies are about listening to people – not unelected bureaucrats from the IMF, European Union, or the European Central Bank – never crossed his mind.

On the other hand there was Varoufakis, too young to play the old ideologue bureaucrat, and sticking to content as a man who knows the issues, understands the details and wants to find solutions.

Again and again, Varoufakis challenged the simplistic economic reasoning of the orthodox financiers with pragmatic and proactive suggestions.

The devastating economic situation in Greece that resulted from four years of Troika austerity policy underpinned every response.

Greece will compromise but it cannot follow a failed policy any longer.

Varoufakis came across as the rarest of politicians in Europe – someone who represents the interests of the many and not just the few.

The arrogance with which the negotiations with Greece are approached is indicative of the current political environment in Europe.

The notion of a supra-national European system stems from visionary leaders such as Robert Schuman who declared in his 1949 speech that “the European spirit signifies being conscious of belonging to a cultural family and to have a willingness to serve that community in the spirit of total mutuality, without any hidden motives of hegemony or the selfish exploitation of others.”

Those with a vision do take paths against strong voices of criticism, like Willy Brandt did in his Neue Ostpolitik (’new Eastern policy’) but not without disregarding and ignoring them.

If Europe wants to survive as an idea which is flexible enough to deal with the challenges of our times, it needs people with a vision for the future of the continent, the creativity to come up with solutions, the willingness to make fundamental changes in a consensual way and the aspiration to fight for the underlying cause of peace.

Europe needs people like Varoufakis – but what it is stuck with are Schäubles.