Helena Smith in Athens Friday 19 June 2015
Oxford-educated economist is well qualified as the point man in negotiations between Athens and international creditors
For those who thought the battle to save Greece was all about a rag tag bunch of leftists finally seeing the light, Euclid Tsakalotos has made many think again.
At the eleventh hour, the Oxford-educated economist has emerged as Athens’ secret weapon, sounding every inch the man he was raised to be: a public school member of the British establishment. “It is rather surprising to the other side,” he says, the Greek parliament framed in the window of his eighth floor office. “But so, too, is the fact that I understand their economic arguments.” Phlegmatic, professorial, mild-mannered, Tsakalotos has spent the best part of 30 years in the ivory towers of Britain and Greece “engaging critically” with neoclassical economic thinking.
No other training could have prepared him better for his role as the point man in negotiations between Athens and the international creditors propping up its near-bankrupt economy. “The fact that he also sounds like an aristocrat helps too,” said an insider in the Syriza party. “He speaks their language better than they do. At times it’s been quite amusing to watch.”
The son of a civil engineer who worked in the well-heeled world of Greek shipping, Tsakalotos was born in Rotterdam in 1960. When his family relocated to London, he was immediately enrolled at the exclusive London private school St Paul’s. A place at Oxford, where he studied PPE, ensued. The hurly burly world of radical left politics could not have been further away. “My grandfather’s cousin was general Thrasyvoulos Tsakalotos who led the other side, the wrong side, in the Greek civil war,” he said of the bloody conflict that pitted communists against rightists between 1946-49. “He expressed the fear that I might end up as a liberal, certainly not anything further to the left.”
Tsakalotos, who has written six books including The Crucible of Resistance, an analysis of Greece at the forefront of Europe’s economic crisis, embraced the left at Oxford when he joined the student wing of Greece’s euro communist party. What goaded him more than anything else was the treatment of the Greek left – who had led the resistance movement against Nazi occupation – after the second world war. “Greeks have had a lot to resist, civil war, dictatorship, authoritarianism,” he said. “But perhaps the most terrible thing was the unfairness with which the left was treated in the post-war period. We were the only nation where people who had participated in what had been a very important resistance movement were treated like pariahs while those who had collaborated with the Germans had it good. It was just so wrong.”
When he moved to Greece, with his Scottish wife in the early 1990s, he signed up with Synaspismos, the party that would become the central plank of Syriza. The anti-globalisation movement convinced him that there was a large segment of society that felt it was not expressed by political elites – one of Syriza’s many mantras. Like many on the Greek left, he believes Athens’ anti-austerity government speaks for the growing numbers across Europe who, subjected to the brutal vagaries of the market, feel excluded from decision-making.
With the understatement of an English gentleman, Tsakalotos admits that in his new position he is losing sleep. On Wednesday he declared that it would be nigh impossible for Greece to keep honouring its debts without a new cash-for-reform deal.
“We’ve squeezed all sources of liquidity from the wider public sector. At some point very soon the money will come to an end,” he said insisting that precisely because it had sequestered funds, the government had proved it was sincere about wanting a deal. “Syriza does not have a mandate to take Greece out of the Eurozone, nor does it have a mandate to apply unworkable austerity. What we need is a deal that is viable, a deal that is good for Europe and Greece.”