Who took Greece down? (Austerity, Part Three)

After I published my reflections on the economic austerity regime imposed on Greece by the EU (see ‘Helen’s Story’ and What Does Austerity Look Like (Part Two)) I received a couple of thoughtful and very interesting emails from an old friend from high school days. (When you start a blog like this one, this is exactly the result you dream of!)


My friend, now retired, had a long career in international diplomacy and inter-governmental organizations. She understands how countries operate, how they compete and how (and why) they cooperate.


Coincidentally, she and her husband have also had many years of experience in Greece and have seen the country from close-up since well before it joined the EU. It was from that perspective that she addressed my posts.


My friend’s take on the Greek disaster generally places less blame on the EU and more on the Greeks themselves. Whereas I tend to let my ideological perspective lead my conclusions more – always a tricky proposition, at best.


That said, her description of the situation faced by friends on the islands is sadly similar to what I encountered in Athens:
…First of all, we were in Patmos soon after Greece began using the euro, and the immediate reaction there was dismay that frappes, cigarettes, and all sorts of small, everyday items had skyrocketed in price.  We had the same reaction, a kind of shock.  We used to take taxis frequently to go out to distant villages at night for dinner, but when the price went up to about 8 euros each way, we had to give that up.  The EU built a new harbor for yachts, which was great for the super-rich tourists who moored there and only left their boats to eat in a fancy restaurant once in a while but otherwise contributed little to the local economy.
…And then there were all the new regulations that weren’t suited to a small island with such a small economy.  So a lot of Patmians expressed right away that joining the euro, and probably even the EU, was a mistake for Greece.
…(And) “our Patmos family,” who owns the small hotel, are very open with us about their problems.  Dad has lost a lot of his pension, the ever-increasing taxes on the hotel business combined with the EU requirements such as lighting on the outside stairways, railings, all sorts of little regulations, customers who insist on paying with credit cards even though our family there can’t get cash from the bank and need it desperately, Mom has serious health problems and they have to take the boat to Athens whenever she gets sick and the hospitals are in disarray….  The saddest thing is that we have been going there since 1993 and saw them work their tails off to make a decent and secure life for the whole family and to be generous with their customers at the same time and then to see it all gone.  If you are older, how do you look back at your life and come up with a meaning for what you put into it?


I’ve cherry-picked from her emails her descriptions of the situation on the island of Patmos, where her family has been going for decades. From a purely descriptive point of view, her observations resemble very closely what I saw in Athens last month.


The more complicated question is ‘why’? And, if any finger-pointing is to be done, who should get the blame? There, we encountered some differences of opinion, although more of emphasis than of substance.


My tendency is to blame the EU, and, behind it, the neo-liberal order for which it functions as the enforcement agent. In this scenario, Greece was simply collateral damage in the battle to enforce the hegemony of the great financial interests of Europe and the US. For more on this point of view (and if you have some time to devote), I recommend the following interviews with Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former Finance Minister and the person who carried out negotiations with the EU for the first year of the Syriza government:

Boiled down to its most essential single point, my argument was that the Greek worker, pensioner and small businessperson are being reduced to penury in order to make German (and other) bankers whole. Most of Greece’s debt was originally private – i.e., Greece could have renegotiated those debts individually with its private creditors. The EU recapitalization of the Greek debt paid off all those creditors and pitted Greek taxpayers directly against German taxpayers, while leaving the bankers and the big financial houses untouched by what were often scandalously irresponsible loan policies.


This resembles  – and was closely related to – what happened in the crash of the US economy of 2008. A huge deal was made of small mortgage holders who may have taken out loans they couldn’t repay. A concept of ‘moral hazard’ was trotted out to explain why no mercy should be given to these people. Meanwhile, the moral responsibility of the institutions and individuals who knowingly offered these junk loans was rarely mentioned – and then usually in ‘left-wing’ media.


My friend’s response to all this was not to absolve the EU, but to point out properly that Greece had played an important role in its own demise. Primarily, she faulted a traditionally corrupt and overly bureaucratic regime:
At the same time, I reiterate what I wrote before.  It isn’t all the EU’s fault and the Greeks know it.  It was always incredibly difficult to start a new business in Greece with the intricate bureaucratic regulations, and the corruption, in the government especially, was rampant.


She also urged us to continue to focus on the human stories, rather than on political and economic analysis:
It’s better to do what you are doing and get away from the blame game and focus on the human plight that we are all in and what we can do about it.
At the time, I completely agreed with this approach. Since then, however, I’ve come back to the idea that there’s a larger story to be told, that the politics and the economics matter precisely because that’s where we come to understand what we can (or can’t) do about it. From that point of view, it matters crucially whether Greece dug its own hole or whether it’s been the victim of an EU mugging – or in what proportion the two are true. The stories we’re telling are the result of these questions, and to not look further is to ignore that fact and to deprive ourselves of a way to understand the bigger game that’s being played with all our lives.

Stop the flow

From the beginning of this project we had set as our goal to show the human side of the refugee crisis and not ignore, but leave in the background the politics involved.

For weeks, I had been asking City Plaza to give us a person from their legal support services to clarify for us the framework of the laws protecting the refugees. On our last day of principal photography the message arrived, with contact information for a very prominent lawyer. When I called, that lawyer was busy that day and she referred us to her partner. The partner turned out to be Vassilis Papadopoulos, former General Secretary of the Ministry of Immigration and after checking our blog he agreed to talk to us. It would be our last interview in this stage of the project.

A lot of what follows hinges on the EU-Turkey statement. Here’s some info about that statement, which was implemented on the 20 of March of 2016 and which crucially states in its first point “All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands as from 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey.”

Up until our interview with Vassilis Papadopoulos we had talked to two people who were very critical about the EU-Turkey statement and who linked the statement to the terrible conditions in the camps, but they were activists. We felt we needed a less ideological analysis to either support or refute these critiques.

Then came Mr Papadopoulos, who was just such a source. As a former government official dealing closely with the fallout from the EU-Turkey statement, he was fully qualified to offer the analysis we needed. We were all somewhat surprised when he largely validated what the two previous persons had told us.

Beyond that, he explained to us in detail the rights of refugees under the Geneva Convention and the implications of the geographical limitation imposed by Turkey on its unwillingness to abide by this convention. It turns out there is a good reason Turkey is not considered a safe country by many refugees. Basically Turkey gives refugee status only to people coming from Europe, the rest have none of the legal protection envisioned by the Geneva Convention for all persons, regardless of origin.

Pap 642 Turkey limited to Syrians from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

Papadopoulos made a number of very important points in our interview with him. Here are a few highlights:

The EU-Turkey statement is in direct violation of the Geneva Convention

Pap 641 illegitimate from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

The EU is knowingly using this statement despite its important legal flaws in trying to stop the flow.

Pap 641 stop flow long from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

The Greek government has imposed the restriction of movement inside the first entry islands as a way to stop the flow. The bad conditions in the Greek islands, are not due simply to a lack of resources or poor planning, but it is a policy of the Greek state in order to stop the flow.

Pap 642 stop the flow from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

Towards the end of our interview Mr Papadopoulos talked about the ongoing fight that goes on in Europe and the rest of the world, over the just application of human rights, and how the current refugee crisis is triggering conflicts and discussions that will determine the future of Europe as a democratic region.

Pap 643 from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

The idea that comes to my mind is that the rise of fascism is dictating the policy of the European Community. The extreme right is using the fear of refugees to appeal to their electorate and gain votes. Their success makes the rest of the parties uneasy and is slowly but surely forcing them to adopt the same rhetoric and finally the same policies.

There is fight going on in the whole world, a fight over the distribution of wealth. Migration is a part of this fight, as are those who are for it and those who are against it. People that support migration think of it as a re-distribution of wealth between the rich European countries, USA, Canada and Australia, and the poor countries of Asia and Africa, and they fight for it as part of a global vision of justice and equality.


Between Two Deaths – بين موتين

How do you feel when you are lifting your child onto a desperately overloaded, leaky, half-deflated rubber raft with a sputtering motor, with everything you had built in the life behind you destroyed forever and the very real possibility that some or all of you may drown in the coming hours?


This question came up with my colleague and co-translator, Manar, while reviewing one of the Arabic-language interviews from last month’s shoot in Greece, where our interviewee was describing just such a moment. Refugees from Syria themselves, Manar and her family have faced this moment also. I asked her what she felt as she passed her children across a sea of people into the raft that was supposed to take them from Turkey to Greece – a 12-mile journey that has cost the lives of hundreds of desperate people in the last few years.


Manar answered without hesitating, an Arabic phrase that caught me up short then and kept coming back to me in the days after I left Greece and joined my son for a bike ride in Switzerland and France. I’d look at him, pedaling next to me, and think about what I’d have done in Manar’s situation – or that of thousands of other parents who have stood on the same shore and made the same enormous gamble with destiny.


Refugees arrive on Lesvos, 2015 (photo: Zaphiris Epaminondas)


What Manar told me was, ‘We stood there, and I felt we were ” بين موتين” – between two deaths. Behind us was death, and everything we had was gone. And in front of us was death. I knew that we might all die, or – much worse – that only some of us would get to the other side. But we had no choice. This was our only road.”

I still think about this often. I think about it from the point of view of any parent who has spent years shepherding children along the path to adulthood, protecting them from danger when necessary. I also think about the political dimension. Why have so many thousands of people found themselves forced to cross in dangerous, unseaworthy boats, having paid enormous sums to criminal operations run by smugglers, and often after physical mistreatment and abuse? Why have so many died, so many been injured, so many been left for days drifting at sea? Why were there no ferries – the very same ferries that already exist to transport tourists between the Greek islands and the Turkish mainland? At the height of the crisis, tourists from the US and Europe would often be the ones to spot these refugee rafts from the safety of their deck chairs. It is true that the crisis ramped up very suddenly. Nevertheless, months and now years have passed and no such provisions have been made – why is that? It certainly would not require unusual efforts and vision to put such a policy in place.


We had glimpses of a disturbing answer from several of our interviews. At the beginning, because our interviewees were not involved in making policy, we saw them as allegations, not necessarily true. As we began to interview policy-makers we found more and more evidence that the lack of a creative response to the dangerous water crossings, like so many others having to do with the refugees, is not the result of a well-meaning but inadequate effort: it is the result of a clear – although rarely public – policy of the European Union. We interviewed Vassilis Papadopoulos, former General Secretary for Migration Policy, and asked him about how the EU-Turkey agreement of 2016 represented the policy of the EU towards the refugees and determined the conditions of their entrance onto European soil. His answer cast a lot of light on my questions: