Understanding Greece's Year In Crisis

A new film takes a close look at the first few months under the country's new leader.

ATHENS, Greece -- According to filmmakers Paul Mason and Theopi Skarlatos, Jan. 25 marked the start of a financial war. That day, Greeks handed a massive election victory to Alexis Tsipras, the young and charismatic leader of the left-wing Syriza coalition.

In the months that followed, Greece went through a crippling financial crisis that brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy and close to an exit from the eurozone. After months of tense negotiations, the Greek government and its troika of lenders -- the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- finally agreed to a third international bailout for the country in exchange for economic reforms and a tough new round of austerity.

Mason, a producer and economics editor at Channel 4 News in the United Kingdom, and Skarlatos, a director and freelance journalist, investigate Greece’s crisis this year in a new four-part documentary series, "#ThisIsACoup." The name of the documentary refers to the Twitter hashtag that trended on the evening of July 12, when Tsipras came to an agreement with the European institutions. The series, the filmmakers say, tells the story of how the European Union destroyed the first radical left government of recent history.

HuffPost Greece spoke with Mason about his documentary series and his view on what happened to Greece in recent months.

--> The documentary "#ThisIsACoup" was published online in four episodes between Dec. 15 and Dec. 18. You can watch them here.


Why did you want to make this film?

Me and my collaborator, Theopi Skarlatos, wanted to make this documentary in order to tell the whole story of a historic event that took place in Europe. We felt that, even though we had done everything possible within our jobs as news editors, there was a deeper story there. The Greek people elected the first radical left government in modern Europe, and what happened then?

Already in its first minutes, the film describes the roller coaster from hope to frustration in which Greece found itself these past few months. What could Europe have done differently, given the circumstances?

It's not our job to say what they could have done differently. The documentary describes a problem. The problem in Europe is, increasingly, as we say in Britain, “might is right.” If you have power, you can achieve your goals. Greece was told for five years it could not exit the eurozone and then, one day before the crucial conference, Germany proposed an exit from the eurozone. ... The problem is, if you rule an alliance of countries simply on the basis of force and power, the legitimacy goes away. So, I think that what the documentary shows is that the clash of the first Syriza government’s anti-austerity program was just part of a bigger problem for Europe, one of legitimacy and democracy.

What could Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras have done differently?

Alexis Tsipras admits in the documentary that he made mistakes. If [the government] had known about how tough the Germans would be, they would have made more bold decisions sooner, when Greece had more money available. I also think that there wasn't a workable plan B. If you are going to clash with the lenders, you need a thoroughly worked-out plan that everybody has signed up to. Clearly, they didn't have that. Greece’s former finance minister, Yannis Varoufakis, had a plan but not everybody signed up to it. Therefore, that means there was no coherent plan.  

The clash of the first Syriza government’s anti-austerity program was just part of a bigger problem for Europe, one of legitimacy and democracy.

Because in some cases civil servants were the leftovers of the old pro-austerity regime, and while [pushing them aside] might have been necessary to secure the government's ability to act, the effect, for me, seems to have been the removal of expertise from the government. They themselves also felt that they didn't do enough to tackle corruption, oligarchy and vested interest. And I think that one of the big tests of the second Syriza government is that they begin to actually reform the state and the public administration in a way that they wanted to but didn't seem to get around to [before]. 

Do you think Tsipras should have used Greeks’ “no” vote in the July referendum on the bailout deal differently in the negotiations with the lenders? Was a Greek withdrawal from the eurozone, or Grexit, even possible?

Unfortunately, it's like one of those football matches. You never know what could have happened if the score were different. But here is the problem: If your plan B is Grexit, and it becomes your opponent’s plan A, that's a difficult moment. Tsipras believes even now that German Finance Minister [Wolfgang] Schauble wanted Greece to exit. I believe the Greek people didn't vote for Grexit with “OXI” [“No”] in the referendum, some clearly wanted it but not all…

In a way, the Grexit question is secondary to the bank question. If the banks had collapsed, then the only way these banks would have been revived would have been through a recapitalization from Europe. The whole problem of the division between Germany and France and between Europe and the IMF would have reappeared and, with every day that would have passed Greeks would have felt the consequences.

We shouldn't have any illusions how difficult this situation was for Tsipras. Once you're in that no-win situation, you can make hard choices. Grexit or surrender. Both of them would have led to very severe economic austerity for Greece.

If you really want to learn lessons, you have to go back several months and ask whether they should have prepared earlier and whether they should have prepared their supporters better. All you heard from Tsipras last spring was that everything was going to be OK, and there would be a deal. If you look back at those interviews, they look ill-advised, because if there is going to be a clash, you prepare people for a clash.

Why have other countries that have gone through austerity measures recovered, and Greece didn’t?

Ireland and Spain effectively had banking crises, but Greece had a bankruptcy of the state crisis of which the origins lie with governments that ran Greece before and after it entered the eurozone. You had an austerity program that was much more severe than the one imposed on Ireland, a program imposed in a completely blind way by a troika that didn't understand how difficult Greece would be to reform, that thought that structural reform would lead to revival, well, it turned out to be rubbish. It makes no economic sense. That's why Greece has suffered more than any other country. Because the austerity was harsh and because it was imposed in a country that has no easy ways of recovering because the industry is so weak. Greece stands as a lesson to the hubris of mainstream economics which predicted one thing and the exact opposite happened.


In “#ThisIsACoup,” filmmakers Paul Mason and Theopi Skarlatos tell the story of the financial and political turbulence Greece and its government went through in 2015.


Do you think Greece’s debt should be restructured?

The only possible thing that can be done about the Greek debt is to restructure it, because it’s not payable. It will be over 190 percent of the [gross domestic product] by next year and that is just not sustainable. If Greece get a restructuring or rescheduling of the debt in 2016, it will take some of the pressure off the government, because the third memorandum takes you through to early 2020. 

Looking at it from the outside, Greece cannot survive with its debt at this level. It just can’t. That’s why Schauble is still pushing for Greeks to leave. The only other alternative is to have a debt restructure.

But it would also mean that this is not just a Greek issue. We know that the left is winning in Portugal, it is also possible that an alliance of the left will win in Spain, and in France the results of maintaining Europe’s policy of austerity and stagnation are political radicalization. The National Front was defeated in the elections but the French leaders are aware that continuing austerity in Europe is driving people to political conclusions that are not compatible for mainstream democratic people. 

This story originally appeared on HuffPost Greece and was translated into English.

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