Yanis Varoufakis knows when he will go. “I’m not going to humiliate myself, and I’m not going to become compromised in terms of principles and in terms of logic,” he told me in early May. The Greek finance minister had just returned to Athens from a hopscotch tour of European capitals, during which he warned his fellow European leaders that they faced a Continental crisis: If they didn’t lend money to his ailing country soon, Greece might end up forced to leave the eurozone. And yet Greece wouldn’t accept many of the conditions they were demanding in return. He sounded angry. “I’ll be damned if I will accept another package of economic policies that perpetuate this same crisis. This is not what I was elected for.” He would resign, he said, rather than push the Greek people deeper into economic despair: “It’s not good for Europe, and it’s not good for Greece.”
Varoufakis has been Greece’s finance minister for only four months, but the story of how he has thrown Europe into turmoil is one many years in the making. After Greece joined the European Union’s monetary union in 2001, the tiny country of 10 million was flooded with money from elsewhere on the Continent. Over the course of the next decade, Greek leaders, whose sclerotic and corrupt economy had long been rife with patronage and tax evasion, borrowed billions from imprudent European banks and then lied to E.U. officials about its mounting debts. When the financial crisis finally rolled into Greece in 2009 and 2010, the country was an estimated $430 billion in debt, a staggering figure that imperiled the economic health of its near and distant neighbors — indeed, all of Europe. The European Commission, International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank (often referred to as the troika) agreed to bail out the sinking economy by loaning it $146 billion. In return, as Athenians rioted in the streets in protest, the government promised the troika it would reduce state spending by slashing pensions and wages, eliminating jobs and raising taxes, an approach to debt reduction known as “austerity.”
That bailout, along with another, even larger rescue in 2012, temporarily buoyed Greece, but the spending cuts have produced what many Greeks consider to be a humanitarian crisis. Twenty-five percent of the country’s population is unemployed; Greece’s gross domestic product has shrunk by a quarter; suicides and homelessness have increased; hospitals, woefully underfunded, scrounge for medicines. Just this month, Varoufakis warned that the country could run out of money in weeks.
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