Why did you decide to hold a referendum?
I had no choice. You have to look at what I and the Greek government were facing on June 25, at the agreement they were giving us. I have to admit that it was a very risky decision. Not only did the will of the Greek government go against the demands of the creditors; it collided with the international financial system, with Greece’s political and media system. They were all against us.
The likelihood of our losing the referendum was so great that our European partners bet on it with their decision to close the banks. But for us it was the only way since they were offering us an agreement with very difficult measures, somewhat like those we have in the present agreement, though slightly worse, but at any event difficult measures and also ineffective ones in my opinion.
At the same time, they offered no possibility of survival. For, in exchange for these measures, they offered 10.6 billion euros over five months. They wanted Greece, once it fulfilled its commitments, to take what remained of the previous program in terms of finance, without one euro more, because this is what the Netherlands, Finland, and Germany demanded.
The main political problem of the northern governments was that at all cost they wanted to avoid going before their parliaments to give even a single "fresh" euro to Greece, because they were trapped by the populist climate they had fomented, in which their populations were led to think that they were paying for the lazy Greeks. This is naturally completely false because they are paying for their banks, not for the Greeks.
What was the result of the Greek people’s strong position, against all odds, in the referendum? It was able to internationalise the problem, to make it spread beyond its borders, to unmask the image of the European partners and creditors. It was able to show international opinion the image not of a lazy people but of a people who are resisting and demanding justice and a future. We tested the limits of resistance of the euro zone.
We had an impact on the relation of forces. France, Italy and the northern countries all had very different positions. The result, certainly, is very difficult, but, on the other hand, the euro zone had been brought to the limits of its resistance and cohesion. The next six months will be critical, and the relation of forces that will be built in this period are just as crucial.
At this moment, the destiny and the strategy of the euro zone have been called into question. There are several possibilities. Those who said "not a single euro more" have in the end decided not on just one euro but 83 billion. Therefore, from 10.6 billion over five months we’ve gone to 83 billion over three years, with the additional crucial feature of the commitment around debt reduction, to be discussed in November. This is a key issue, determining whether Greece can enter on a path that gets it out of the crisis.
We have to put an end to the tales told by Messrs Samaras and Venizelos, who claimed they were getting out of the Memoranda. The reality is that there was a hole in this tale, and that hole is the debt. With a debt at 180-200 per cent of GDP you cannot have a stable economy. The only path that we could take is that of debt reduction, cancellation and relief. The condition for the country being able to gain some financial margin is that it no longer be obliged to run huge budget surpluses intended for a debt that is unpayable.
The referendum’s’no’ was a ‘no’ to austerity …
The referendum question had two parts. There was part A, which involved the measures previously required, and part B, which involved the financing timetable. To be completely honest, without embellishing anything, the agreement that followed the referendum is, in terms of part A, similar to the one that the Greek people rejected. On the other hand, in terms of part B, we also have to be honest, and in this respect there is a day-and-night difference.
Before, we had five months, 10.6 billion, five months [in which our public expenditures were particularly closely] scrutinised. Now, we have 83 billion – which means a total coverage for medium-term (2015–2018) financial needs, of which 47 billion are for foreign payments, 4.5 billion for public sector arrears, and 20 billion for the recapitalisation of the banks, and, finally, there is the crucial commitment on the question of debt.
On the Wednesday evening before the vote, certain milieus were laying the basis for a coup d’état in the country, proclaiming the need to storm the prime minister’s headquarters, that the government was leading the country toward a terrible economic catastrophe, pointing to the queues at banks.
I have to say that the Greek people were able to keep their cool to such an extent that television news channels had a hard time finding people to complain about the situation – the population was really incredible.
That evening, I addressed the Greek population and I told the truth. I didn’t say: "I’m holding a referendum to exit the euro." I said: "I’m holding a referendum to give us a negotiating dynamic." The "no" to the bad agreement was not a "no" to the euro, a "yes" to the drachma. People can accuse me of poor calculations, of having had illusions, but at every moment I said things clearly; I informed parliament twice; I told the Greek people the truth.
With 61.2% [support] in your hands that the Greek people gave you, what would have been the agreement that would have satisfied you on your return from Brussels?
On the morning of Friday, June 25, the day of the ultimatum, during a meeting we had in Brussels, with prospects of humiliation without any way out, we decided to go ahead with the referendum. For them it was take it or leave it. "The game is over" is what Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council repeatedly said. They made no bones about it; they wanted a political change in Greece.
We had no choice; we chose the path of democracy, giving the word to the Greek people.
Returning to Greece that evening I convened the government council and we took the decision. I interrupted the meeting to communicate with Angela Merkel and François Hollande. I told them of my decision; that very morning I had explained to them that what they were proposing was not an honest solution. They asked me what I would advise the Greek people, and I answered that I would advise them to vote "no", not in the sense of a confrontation but as a choice to strengthen Greece’s negotiating position.
And I asked them to help me in completing this process successfully and calmly, to help me in getting the Eurogroup, which was to meet 48 hours later, to agree on a one-week extension of the program so that the referendum would take place under conditions of security and not of asphyxiation, with banks closed.
At that moment, both of them assured me that they would do everything possible to that end. Only the chancellor [of Germany Merkel] warned me that she would make a public statement on the referendum, but representing it as an issue of whether Greece wanted to remain in the euro. I told her that I absolutely disagreed with this, that the question was not the euro or the drachma but that she was free to say what she wanted. That’s where the conversation stopped.
This promise was not kept. 48 hours later, the Eurogroup made a very different decision. Their decision was made at the moment when the Greek parliament was voting to approve the referendum. In 24 hours the decision of the Eurogroup led to the ECB’s decision not to increase the ELA ceiling [Editor’s note: the mechanism for emergency liquidity assistance on which Greek banks depend], which forced us to establish capital controls to head off the collapse of the banking system. The decision to close the banks was, I believe, a vengeful decision against the choice of a government to defer to its people.
Did you expect this result?
I confess that up to Wednesday [before the referendum] I had the impression that the results would be indecisive. By Thursday I began to realise that the "no" would win, and by Friday I was convinced of it.
In this victory, the promise I made to the Greek people to not gamble with a humanitarian catastrophe was brought to bear. I didn’t gamble with the survival of the country and its popular strata.
After this, in Brussels several terrifying scenarios were put on the table. I knew that during the 17 hours in which I had to wage this struggle, alone, under difficult conditions, if I did what my heart wanted to do – to get up, bang my fist on the table and leave – the foreign branches of Greek banks would collapse on that very day. In 48 hours the liquidity that allowed €60 daily withdrawals would dry up and, worse, the ECB would decide on a reduction of the Greek banks’ collateral and would even demand repayments that would have led to the collapse of the whole banking system. In that case, a collapse would have meant not a reduction of savings but their disappearance.
Despite all, I waged this struggle trying to reconcile logic and passion. I knew that if I got up and left I would probably have to return under still more disadvantageous conditions. I was facing a dilemma. World public opinion was proclaiming "#ThisIsaCoup", to the point that it became the leading hashtag on Twitter worldwide that night. On the one hand, there was logic; on the other hand, political sensibility. On reflection, I remain convinced that the right decision was to opt for the protection of the popular classes. Otherwise, harsh reprisals could have destroyed the country. I made a responsible choice.
You don’t believe in this agreement and yet you asked the deputies to vote for it. What do you have in mind?
I think, and I told parliament this, that what our European partners and creditors wrested is a Pyrrhic victory, but that at the same time it represents a great moral victory for Greece and its left government. It’s a painful compromise, both on the economic and the political level.
You know, compromise is an element of political reality and an element of revolutionary tactics. Lenin is the first to speak of compromise in his book Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, where he devotes several pages to explaining that compromise is part of revolutionary tactics.
In one passage, he gives the example of a bandit pointing a pistol at you and saying "your money or your life". What is a revolutionary supposed to do? Give his life? No, he has to give the money in order to claim his right to live and continue the struggle.
We’ve been facing a coercive dilemma. Today, the opposition parties and the establishment media are making a tremendous noise, to the point even of demanding criminal proceedings against Yanis Varoufakis. We are completely aware that we are risking our heads in waging a struggle at the political level. But we are waging it with the overwhelming majority of the Greek people at our side.
This is what gives us strength.