Yanis Varoufakis: The Finance Minister who cooks a mean Thai meal, chats about art, and shoots hoops

Whether Greece's Finance Minister can sort out the economy is up for debate – but what a guy, says Simon Usborne

Simon Usborne
Tuesday 03 February 2015 20:48 GMT
George Osborne with the Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, outside 11 Downing Street on Monday (Reuters)
George Osborne with the Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, outside 11 Downing Street on Monday (Reuters) (Reuters)

Yanis Varoufakis, who managed to look more at home than George Osborne after rocking up at 11 Downing Street this week, had a less well-documented brush with the Tory party several years ago. In his time as a student at Essex University in the 1980s, the striking new Greek Finance Minister overlapped with one of the few members of the lefty institution's Conservative Student Union. His name was John Bercow, who is now the Speaker of the House of Commons.

"They would often clash with each other in debates," says Professor Monojit Chatterjee, who was Varoufakis's PhD supervisor and remains a good friend. "Here's something else nobody else knows. Yanis was – and this may take you by surprise – the secretary of the black students' union."

Come again?

"Really. When he walked in, everyone said: 'What are you doing here?' And he told them that black was a political term and, as a Greek, on the grounds of ethnicity he had as much reason to be there as anyone else."

It is an image of a young maverick with a surplus of self-belief that reflects everything friends and colleagues still say about Varoufakis, who has swapped a Colchester debating chamber for the biggest political and economic stage. The telegenic academic economist was already a voice in Europe, having built a media profile via his blog and TV appearances. But this week he walked – and roared on his Yamaha motorbike – into popular consciousness after Syriza stormed to victory in the Greek elections.

For the banks and his austerity-seeking opposite numbers in Europe (and the newspapers that support them), Varoufakis is a threat. The Sun dismissed him yesterday as a "Marxist biker". But to the Greeks who elected him and his new admirers elsewhere, he has become an instant left-wing pin-up who refuses to conform. Moreover, he looks remarkably like a human in a world of robots (check out the way he and Osborne filled their respective armchairs on Monday). How many finance ministers ride motorbikes, date artists, work in computer gaming, play basketball, exude braininess and never wear a tie?

Vassilis Goulandris, founder of a social-media company in Athens, went to primary school with Varoufakis, long before the minister's studies took him from Essex to Sydney and then Austin, Texas, before his return to Athens. "He always engaged passionately with all the things that he somehow managed to squeeze in a day, whether that was the volleyball team, biking, playing keyboards in the music group, presenting a discourse on contemporary music or indeed politics," Goulandris says. "His breadth of interests and his sheer energy put him at the centre stage… we all knew that he would excel in anything he put his mind on."

Goulandris says his friend dresses "as himself", but also tactically: "It's his way of challenging you to raise to the occasion and confront him with real, powerful and convincing arguments and not just accept him on the merits of an empty conformity." Take that, George.

Nicholas Theocarakis, a leading Greek academic and economist, who has co-authored a book with Varoufakis, says his friend is "a great ball of fire and disgustingly efficient." The pair and their wives (Varoufakis is married to Danae Stratou, a Greek installation artist based at the couple's home in Austin) have been on holiday together.

"After a swim and a lunch, which he would help prepare and serve, when everybody else would go for a siesta, Yanis would write a few thousand words for a website/journal/newspaper, then excuse himself for an interview through Skype. He would blog later on, or prepare a lecture or a seminar and then we will find out that there is a new book of his waiting to be published. Just going through his schedule makes you feel knackered."

Varoufakis's energy, which will serve him well as he attempts to rescue his country under the pressure of the biggest economies in Europe, extends beyond work. "He is well-versed in culture – philosophy, literature, visual arts and music," Theocarakis adds. "I have watched him discuss quite knowledgeably the finer points of art with top-notch critics and historians."

He cooks Thai food, well ("He will not just follow a recipe, he will improvise," Goulandris says), and spends time in the gym and on the basketball court, making him appear younger than his 52 years.

In a week in which Ed Miliband tried to convince a panel of young voters that he once had a life outside politics ("I was an economic adviser to the Treasury," he offered) Varoufakis reveals an impressive CV. Most intriguingly, he worked as a consultant for Valve Corporation, the American computer-games giant behind series including Counter-Strike and Half-Life. As economist-in-residence, he applied his eurozone expertise to virtual economies, while also developing a predictions game as a way to "test the hypothesis that the tens of millions of [gamers] can, collectively, outperform the Fed, the IMF, the OECD in terms of the accuracy of their predictions", he told the Financial Times in 2013.

Varoufakis's economic chops are not in doubt, whatever your politics. His colleagues speak in raptures about his intellect, academic integrity and pragmatism. He is radical, but is he cool? The style of his shirt challenges that view. One fashion commentator described it, not unsnobbishly, as "Wetherspoon's appropriate" paired with "an early 1990s Madchester drug-dealer's coat".

If not cool, then alternative, which is even more refreshing. Varoufakis describes himself as an accidental politician. When he announced his intention to run for election only four weeks ago, he wrote on his blog: "My greatest fear, now that I have tossed my hat in the ring, is that I may turn into a politician. As an antidote to that virus I intend to write my resignation letter and keep it in my inside pocket, ready to submit it the moment I sense signs of losing the commitment to speak truth to power."

His friends at least are confident that the letter will remain in the pocket. Last word to Theocarakis: "There is an ancient Greek proverb that says "archen andra deiknusin", ie, 'being in a position of power or authority shows the quality of a man'. Knowing Yanis, I am looking forward to see what I think about him is proven right."

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