New Greek Finance Chief Brings Much-Needed Diplomatic Touch

July 9, 2015 Updated: July 9, 2015

ATHENS, Greece—On his first full day as Greek finance minister, Euclid Tsakalotos faced 18 angry colleagues in a room in Brussels.

His eurozone counterparts were livid after the left-wing Greek government called and won an austerity referendum that rejected their proposals for a rescue deal. Wearing a crumpled cotton suit, no tie and a gentle smile, Tsakalotos walked into the conference room on Tuesday carrying a notepad of hotel stationery with hand-written discussion points — easily readable by zoom lens — that included the entry “no triumphalism.”

Such mild manners and diplomatic tact have helped the 55-year-old restore negotiations between Greece and its creditors after they had been strained to breaking point by his larger-than-life, confrontational predecessor, Yanis Varoufakis.

Tsakalotos was given only a few days to calm tempers among eurozone officials and rewrite the plan of economic measures that Greece proposes to take in exchange for loans. A deal needs to be reached by Sunday or, European officials have hinted, Greece may be shown the euro exit door.

While Tsakalotos did not present the written proposals at the meeting Tuesday, he is expected to submit them Thursday for approval this weekend.

Tsakalotos has been given five days to close a deal that Varoufakis failed to clinch in five months.

“I won’t hide the fact that I’m nervous and anxious. I’m not assuming this position at the easiest moment in Greek history,” he said after being sworn in.

Tsakalotos is not new to the issues. He has effectively been running negotiations since late April, when Athens switched tactics from waiting out lenders to intense engagement. The decision sidelined Varoufakis and world markets rose on hopes Tsakalotos would prove more effective.

Varoufakis, who like Tsakalotos has had an academic career in Britain, praised his old friend at a handover ceremony.

“This is a changing of the guard between something more than colleagues, friends and fellow academics. With Euclid we have shared common philosophies, ideologies and academic references for many, many years.”

Most of their similarities end there.

Varoufakis faced his European colleagues with the swagger of an intellectual heavyweight — despite their frequent complaints of being lectured — and drove up to the steps of the prime minister’s office on his motorbike, often with the more studious Tsakalotos as his passenger.

As Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ left-wing Syriza party surged in popularity, Tsakalotos provided few of the sound bites but was a key member of the economic planning team that translated ideological aspirations into workable numbers to present to creditors: lower surplus targets and scenarios for debt relief.

Euclid Tsakalotos is named after the renowned ancient Greek mathematician, known as “the father of geometry.” He is married to Scottish economist Heather Gibson, who works as an adviser at the Bank of Greece.

He went to the prestigious St Paul’s private school in London and Oxford University, and left his job as lecturer in economics at Reading University in southern England to return to Greece when he was 33.

His great uncle was General Thrasyvoulos Tsakalotos, a highly distinguished former head of the Greek army, who led the defeat of left-wing insurgents in the 1946-1949 Greek Civil War, and who late in life publicly endorsed late Socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou.

Tsakalotos is seen as a bridge builder in the Syriza party as it has become plagued by ideological divisions. He is a close friend of Bank of Greece Governor Yannis Stournaras, a former finance minister and fellow Oxford graduate, whom Syriza colleagues have frequently accused of siding with foreign creditors.

Syriza hardliners have also grumbled about Tsakalotos’ relatively wealthy background, which includes property in the upscale Athens suburb of Kifissia and in his ancestral hometown of Preveza, in northwestern Greece.

But few doubt his hard work to maintain the party’s left-wing credentials.

In March, Tsakalotos won a standing ovation in Dublin at the annual conference of Sinn Fein, an opposition nationalist party that is Syriza’s main ally in Ireland. He raised a clenched fist in the air alongside Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

After apologizing for his English accent to the Irish republican audience, he explained how Syriza, Sinn Fein and Spain’s anti-austerity Podemos party were “part of a great realignment of European politics.”