BALTIC BLOG: Riga fails to rid ECOFIN of its turbulent priest

By bne IntelliNews April 27, 2015

Mike Collier in Riga -


You need a very special sort of personality disorder to cover meetings of EU finance ministers. Ideally, it should combine Cassandra complex, Hero complex, Persecution Complex and perhaps a dash of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This very special combination explains why a very special group of people – the Brussels correspondents – are the only ones really capable of bearing witness to ECOFIN.

The meeting that took place in Riga, Latvia on April 24-25 proved the point perfectly. To ordinary hack writers lacking psychological complexity, such as your correspondent, the event was simply a few meetings of rather boring (overwhelmingly) men in rather boring suits making rather boring statements about the European economy. This everyman's assessment rests on the basic assumption that whatever these men say probably doesn't make much difference, that the economy controls them and not vice versa.

But if you have the correct psychological attributes, you see it the other way around, and in far more vivid colours. Then, the words that slip from these men's mouths become a sort of technical poetry in which you luxuriate, teasing out every subtle meaning and inference.  Something as apparently innocuous as Mario Draghi saying, “I have nothing to add to the comments of my colleague,” becomes a labyrinth of possibilities, a complex coded communication, perhaps even a prophecy which only special initiates can interpret. Why didn't Draghi have anything to add? What did his silence signify? A mystical silence.

As a result, the Brussels press pack resembles nothing so much as a medieval monastic order, full of odd eccentricities, removed from quotidian life, but for that very reason inspiring a certain awe and even a little fear among onlookers.

Being locked in a basement for two days certainly adds to the impression of monastic solitude. While the burghers of Riga outside basked under blue spring skies, spoiled only by the occasional security helicopter flyby, the Trappist press pack was consigned to the subterranean vault of the Latvian National Library. This windowless but floodlit dungeon was made more comfortable by the provision of WiFi, coffee and a remarkably popular chiller cabinet offering slabs of cheese, but retained the atmosphere of the monastic cell as the special correspondents slaved away at their illuminated keyboards.

The hours of sensory solitude and contemplation of copy in that buffet-catered Purgatory made the trips to the press conferences held two floors above strangely compelling, not because they provided any excitement but because they gave an opportunity to look up above the podiums at the roof, where a thin, broad window displayed a strip of blue sky. It was beautiful. Thoughts turned towards the mystery of Creation. Then you heard Latvian Finance Minister Janis Reirs saying: “low productivity and persistently high long-term structural employment,” and your religious rapture evaporated.

But for the Brussels press pack, it was the words of Reirs and his colleagues that held the real magic. Every corner of the National Library building, every alcove of Riga's hotels seemed to be occupied by journalists and members of delegations whispering on-the-record, off-the-record and we-never-met briefings about things the finance ministers – the high priests of the order – had said to each other in discussions about the Orthodoxy of the Juncker plan or the Digital Agenda. These commentaries were worthy of any Biblical Concordance: “He said this, but what he meant was that.” Finance ministers speak in parables.

Yet there was a heretic in their midst. And verily his name was Yanis Varoufakis.

Speaking in Greek

Despite all the supposedly technical discussions of unified capital markets and financial system fragmentation, the main headline of the Riga meeting was a story saying that the Greek finance minister had been called a “timewaster,” a “gambler,” an “amateur” and according to some rumours even an “idiot” by his peers in a bad-tempered meeting, rather like a conclave of cardinals ganging up on one of their number who had declined to deliver mass in Latin.

However, following this Spanish Inquisition-like scene, Varoufakis emerged as relaxed and smiling as ever to deliver his own press briefing.

There really is something evangelical about Varoufakis, and it was fascinating to see him in action. He is everything most of the other finance ministers are not – communicative, charismatic, stylish – and like all Messiahs (even false ones) extremely persuasive. But more importantly, he uses a direct, modern language that makes their occult, old-fashioned way of talking sound like Church Slavonic. “Our government is utterly undogmatic... the old-fashioned Troika process was simply inimical to reforms and agreements, and we're not going to go back to that,” Varoufakis said. “These [Troika] visits have created a clash within the Greek polity for years now. The animosity that was being created by this ritualistic humiliation of the Greek population and the Greek governments of the past turned Greece into an unreformable country.”

“Let me be clear: our government was asked to do the impossible, to complete a review in two months, a review that the previous government did not complete in two years. In no other programme country has there been such haste... let's face it, the reason we were elected was because the programme was not particularly successful,” Varoufakis said.

Back down in the serene, shadowy spaces of the pressroom a Brussels journalist asked: “What does inimical mean?”

“I don't know, I'm monitoring and tabulating the relationship between structural reform and growth,” replied his colleague, a man with a droning voice perfectly suited for Gregorian chant.

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