A Clinton Story Fraught With Inaccuracies: How It Happened and What’s Next?

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Make no mistake. A Clinton presidency would be disastrous – the worst of all possible deplorable choices, none worthy of any public office, all aspirants beholden to wealth, power and privilege exclusively.

 

By Margaret Sullivan – Public Editor’s Journal

July 27, 2015 10:00 am

Updated: July 28, 2015 | The story certainly seemed like a blockbuster: A criminal investigation of Hillary Rodham Clinton by the Justice Department was being sought by two federal inspectors general over her email practices while secretary of state.

It’s hard to imagine a much more significant political story at this moment, given that she is the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president.

The story a Times exclusive — appeared high on the home page and the mobile app late Thursday and on Friday and then was displayed with a three-column headline on the front page in Friday’s paper. The online headline read “Criminal Inquiry Sought in Hillary Clinton’s Use of Email,” very similar to the one in print.

But aspects of it began to unravel soon after it first went online. The first major change was this: It wasn’t really Mrs. Clinton directly who was the focus of the request for an investigation. It was more general: whether government information was handled improperly in connection with her use of a personal email account.

Much later, The Times backed off the startling characterization of a “criminal inquiry,” instead calling it something far tamer sounding: it was a “security” referral.

From Thursday night to Sunday morning – when a final correction appeared in print – the inaccuracies and changes in the story were handled as they came along, with little explanation to readers, other than routine corrections. The first change I mentioned above was written into the story for hours without a correction or any notice of the change, which was substantive.

And the evolving story, which began to include a new development, simply replaced the older version. That development was that several instances of classified information had been found in Mrs. Clinton’s personal email – although, in fairness, it’s doubtful whether the information was marked as classified when she sent or received those emails. Eventually, a number of corrections were appended to the online story, before appearing in print in the usual way – in small notices on Page A2.

But you can’t put stories like this back in the bottle – they ripple through the entire news system.

So it was, to put it mildly, a mess. As a result, I’ve been spending the last couple of days asking how this could happen and how something similar can be prevented in the future. I’ve spoken to the executive editor, Dean Baquet; to a top-ranking editor involved with the story, Matt Purdy; and to the two reporters, Matt Apuzzo and Michael S. Schmidt.

Meanwhile, I heard from readers, like Maria Cranor who wanted clarification and explanation on The Times’s “recent, and mystifying, coverage of the HRC emails. It appears that your reporters relied on leaks from the Gowdy committee to suggest that Clinton was involved in some kind of criminal malfeasance around the emails. The subsequent walk backs have not been effective, or encouraging. Please help us retain our wavering confidence in the Times’ political coverage!” (Her reference is to the Republican congressman, Trey Gowdy.)

Another reader, Paul Kingsley, demanded a refund for his Friday paper. “We all deserve one,” he wrote to me. And, complaining about the lack of transparency and the errors, he added:

1) please repost the original reporting;
2) provide an explanation as to how it made it to press and what was wrong.
3) what are you going to do to prevent such inaccurate bias in the future?
4) are you going to minimize using unnamed sources?

The story developed quickly on Thursday afternoon and evening, after tips from various sources, including on Capitol Hill. The reporters had what Mr. Purdy described as “multiple, reliable, highly placed sources,” including some “in law enforcement.” I think we can safely read that as the Justice Department.

The sources said not only was there indeed a referral but also that it was directed at Mrs. Clinton herself, and that it was a criminal referral. And that’s how The Times wrote it initially.

“We got it wrong because our very good sources had it wrong,” Mr. Purdy told me. “That’s an explanation, not an excuse. We have an obligation to get facts right and we work very hard to do that.”

By Friday afternoon, the Justice Department issued a terse statement, saying that there had been a referral related to the potential compromise of classified information, stating clearly that it was not a criminal referral. Mr. Purdy says he remains puzzled about why the initial inaccurate information was confirmed so clearly. (Update: Other news outlets also got confirmation of the criminal referral as they followed The Times’s story. They did not report, as an earlier version of this post suggested, that she herself was the target of the referral.)

There are at least two major journalistic problems here, in my view. Competitive pressure and the desire for a scoop led to too much speed and not enough caution. Mr. Purdy told me that the reporters, whom he described as excellent and experienced, were “sent back again and again” to seek confirmation of the key elements; but while no one would discuss the specifics of who the sources were, my sense is that final confirmation came from the same person more than once.

The reporters and editors were not able to see the referral itself, Mr. Purdy said, and that’s the norm in such cases; anything else would be highly unusual, he said. So they were relying on their sources’ interpretation of it. All at The Times emphasized that the core of the initial story – the request for an investigation – is true, and that it was major news, as was the later development.

Hindsight’s easy, but I’ll take a stab at it anyway. Here’s my take:

First, consider the elements. When you add together the lack of accountability that comes with anonymous sources, along with no ability to examine the referral itself, and then mix in the ever-faster pace of competitive reporting for the web, you’ve got a mistake waiting to happen. Or, in this case, several mistakes.

Reporting a less sensational version of the story, with a headline that did not include the word “criminal,” and continuing to develop it the next day would have been a wise play. Better yet: Waiting until the next day to publish anything at all.

Losing the story to another news outlet would have been a far, far better outcome than publishing an unfair story and damaging The Times’s reputation for accuracy.

What’s more, when mistakes inevitably happen, The Times needs to be much more transparent with readers about what is going on. Just revising the story, and figuring out the corrections later, doesn’t cut it.

Mr. Baquet, who is a former Times Washington bureau chief, told me Sunday by phone that he faults himself on this score, and he would do it differently now.

“We should have explained to our readers right away what happened here, as soon as we knew it,” he said. That could have been in an editor’s note or in a story, or in some other form, he said.

“The readers of The New York Times got whipsawed,” by all the conflicting reports and criticism, he said.

He agreed, as Mr. Purdy did, that special care has to come with the use of anonymous sources, but he believes that the errors here “may have been unavoidable.” And Mr. Purdy said that he thought The Times probably took too long to append a correction in the first instance.

But, Mr. Baquet said, he does not fault the reporters or editors directly involved.

“You had the government confirming that it was a criminal referral,” Mr. Baquet said. “I’m not sure what they could have done differently on that.”

None of this should be used to deny the importance of The Times’s reporting on the subject of Mrs. Clinton’s email practices at the State Department, a story Mr. Schmidt broke in March. Although her partisans want the focus shifted to these errors, the fact remains that her secret email system hamstrung possible inquiries into her conduct while secretary of state both by the news media and the public under the Freedom of Information Act and by Congress. And her awarding to herself the first cull of those emails will make suspicion about what they contained a permanent part of the current campaign.

Nevertheless, the most recent story is both a messy and a regrettable chapter. It brings up important issues that demand to be thought about and discussed internally with an eye to prevention in the future.

Mr. Baquet and Mr. Purdy said that would happen, especially on the issue of transparency to readers. In my view, that discussion must also include the rampant use of anonymous sources, and the need to slow down and employ what might seem an excess of caution before publishing a political blockbuster based on shadowy sources.

I’ll summarize my prescription in four words: Less speed. More transparency.

After all, readers come to The Times not for a scoop, though those can be great, but for fair, authoritative and accurate information. And when things do go wrong, readers deserve a thorough, immediate explanation from the top. None of that happened here.

(Update: An editors’ note, explaining the errors and stating that corrections should have been handled differently, was published late Monday, and appeared in Tuesday’s paper on page A2.)

EU Commission President Juncker: ‘I Don’t Understand Tsipras’ – Interview with SPIEGEL

Keep Juncker as far away from you as possible!

 

Greece is in the eye of the storm. Washington is involved with EU countries bullying its SYRIZA government to make endless odious debt payments – the exact opposite of sound policy. It’s about:

  • paying bankers first at the expense of its ordinary citizens; 
  • impoverishing them;
  • bankrupting the country; 
  • preventing an essential Grexit to repair its devastated economy; 
  • forcing it to keep selling off its crown jewels at fire sale prices; and 
  • ultimately regime change – replacing SYRIZA with right-wing governance beholden solely to monied interests instead of its current one going part way.

 

EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker remains committed to preventing a Grexit. But he tells SPIEGEL that his patience is wearing thin: “I don’t believe the Greek government’s response has been sufficient.”

SPIEGEL: Mr. Juncker, we would like to speak with you about friendship.

Juncker: A vast topic. Go ahead.

SPIEGEL: It says in the dictionary that friendship is a relationship defined by mutual affection and trust. If you use that as a guide, would you describe Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras as a friend of yours?

Juncker: There are two types of friendship. The first is rooted in goodwill, of the kind I feel for Mr. Tsipras. The second — true friendship — is much rarer, because it must first overcome obstacles and grow.

SPIEGEL: You began referring to Tsipras as a friend soon after he took office. More recently, though, you have begun complaining that he is incorrectly depicting the offers you have made in Athens. Were your friendly overtures to him somewhat premature?

Juncker: No, my relationship to Mr. Tsipras is, for the time being, a friendship in accordance with the word’s first definition. Only later will it become clear if real friendship will grow out of that. I will, however, acknowledge that the trust I placed in him is not always returned in equal measure.

SPIEGEL: You have made concessions to Mr. Tsipras on several issues, but he is still accusing you and the other creditors of wanting to pillage Greece. Are you disappointed in him?

Juncker: One should never take personally the relationships between representatives and institutions. We are here to work for the people. On the other hand, politics cannot function without reliable personal relationships. With all due respect to the new Greek government, one has to point out that some of its representatives came into office without being adequately prepared for the tasks awaiting them.

SPIEGEL: The negotiations with the Greeks are making exceedingly slow progress, if any at all, despite the fact that the country’s bankruptcy is coming closer and closer. Is it still possible to prevent the country’s departure from the euro zone?

Juncker: We have to keep trying to do all we can to prevent a Grexit. You are right; we are running out of time. And some of the toxic rhetoric coming out of Athens doesn’t make it any easier to find a compromise. Mostly, though, I just ignore the rhetoric, because we have to make progress.

SPIEGEL: The Greeks seem to think they can get a better deal if they remain at the poker table.

Juncker: European politics is not a card game where there is a winner and a loser at the end. On the contrary: Either everyone wins, or everyone loses. That is why it is absolutely essential that the Greek government move as quickly as it can.

SPIEGEL: Many of your colleagues have accused you of essentially inviting the Greek government to shove its chips into the middle of the table. After all, at the very beginning of the negotiations, you categorically ruled out the possibility of a Grexit.

Juncker: Had I said at the beginning of the negotiations that a Grexit was an option, it would have unleashed a wave of speculation on the financial markets. Apparently, there are some in the Greek government who have misunderstood and believe that there is someone in Europe who can pull a rabbit out of the hat in the end. But that is not the case. I have warned Mr. Tsipras many times he shouldn’t depend on me being able to prevent a failure of the talks if that isn’t desired by the other side. We should do everything we can to prevent a Grexit, but to do so, both sides must exert themselves. In the end, I would prefer the rabbit to bear the Greek national colors.

SPIEGEL: Do you have the impression that Tsipras understands the stakes for his country?

Juncker: I have described for him in detail what an exit from the euro zone would mean for his country on the short-, medium- and long-term.

SPIEGEL: And that is?

Juncker: Greece has experienced deep cuts to its social safety net. The result has been an unacceptable humanitarian crisis. Every morning, many people in Athens or Thessaloniki are actually faced with the question as to how they are going to feed themselves that day. The problem, though, is that the crisis would only become worse in the case of a Grexit. On the other hand, there are people in Greece who are filthy rich. I have called upon Mr. Tsipras to raise taxes on wealth in his country. Shockingly, his response to my request was not as enthusiastic as I had expected.

SPIEGEL: For five years now, international creditors have been trying to stave off Greek insolvency with vast aid packages worth hundreds of billions of euros. But unemployment in the country remains at 25 percent and gross domestic product has plunged by a quarter. Don’t you have to admit that Europe’s attempts to save Greece have failed?

Juncker: You are failing to mention the successes we have achieved. Although Greece’s GDP has fallen dramatically, the government has presented a budget in which revenues are significantly higher than expenditures. I reject the idea that the Greeks are lying around doing nothing. Pensions have been slashed, salaries reduced and public spending reined in. Germans, in particular, have the impression that the Greeks have done nothing to free themselves from their plight. That impression is incorrect.

SPIEGEL: But the Greeks no longer want austerity. People hate the Troika and the government is cheered when it blasts the parameters laid down by the International Monetary Fund as “criminal.” How can the bailout project be continued on such a foundation?

Juncker: It bothers me that the Tsipras government acts as though we in the European Commission are austerity fanatics who are crushing the dignity of the Greek people underfoot. I am upset that the Greek government acts as though the Commission is seeking a higher sales tax on electricity, to mention one example. I have told Mr. Tsipras many times that I am open to other suggestions if they result in the same revenues. Instead of complaining about the Commission, Mr. Tsipras could one day tell Greeks that I have offered a €35 billion investment program for the years 2015 to 2020 to stimulate growth in his country. I haven’t heard anything about that.

SPIEGEL: Do you have an explanation?

Juncker: I don’t see myself as being in a position to psychoanalyze another European government. I sometimes even find it difficult to analyze myself. But jokes aside: I don’t believe the Greek government’s response has been sufficient. If I were the Greek prime minister, I would sell that as an achievement and say: I pushed through the €35 billion package in Brussels. I don’t understand Tsipras. In one of the positive moments during our negotiations, I once told him during a coffee break: If I had campaigned on your platform, I would have won 80 percent of the vote. But he only got 36 percent.

SPIEGEL: If Tsipras continues to reject additional spending cuts, he would only be doing what he promised to do during the campaign. Do you fault him for that?

Juncker: I, too, am of the opinion that, following an election, a politician should do what he or she promised before the vote. For that reason, politicians have to think carefully, before the election, whether they will be able to fulfill their campaign promises. European countries make up a community of destiny — one which only works if the members can depend on each other. Unfortunately, prior to taking over the government, Mr. Tsipras adopted positions, which, in part, are in conflict with the rules governing this union. That is why his campaign promises cannot be 100 percent implemented. Mr. Tsipras should have known that.

SPIEGEL: Do you understand why another friend of yours, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, now believes that a Grexit is the better alternative?

Juncker: I am not aware of any sentence uttered by Wolfgang Schäuble that would lead you to draw such a conclusion. The German finance minister is a devoted European who, in his person, unites both the past and the future. As such, everyone — and the Greeks in particular — would be well advised to listen closely to this man.

SPIEGEL: Schäuble is concerned that the case of Greece could send the wrong message. If creditors are too lenient and the Greek gamble is successful, other euro-zone member states could seek to emulate Athens’ chutzpah.

Juncker: That is a danger I see as well. I know that many, particularly in Germany, see me as a naive proponent of Greece. But I am very clear that solidarity and solidity belong together. While I have understanding for a temporary inability to adhere to the rules, we cannot have a situation where the one who breaks the rules is rewarded. That is why the Greek government must make clear that it is prepared to adhere to the rules.

SPIEGEL: Tsipras enjoys widespread support among the Greek populace, but at the same time, a clear majority of Greeks would like to remain part of the euro zone. Would it not make sense to ask the country’s voters if they are prepared to continue down the path of austerity?

Juncker: It is erroneous to believe that one can change the reality in all of Europe with a referendum or new elections in a single country. I have explained that to Mr. Tsipras on several occasions. No matter what happens in Athens, the make-up of parliaments in other member states — and in the German Bundestag as well — will remain exactly as it is.

SPIEGEL: Let’s assume for a moment that international creditors are successful in finding a last-minute compromise with Athens: Do you think Chancellor Angela Merkel would be able to convince German parliamentarians to back such a deal?

Juncker: If we are able to reach an understanding that is sustainable, and if it is reached in cooperation with the German government, then it would be Angela Merkel’s task to convince the German Bundestag of its merits — and I am absolutely convinced that she would be successful.

SPIEGEL: With all due respect to your optimism, the mood is quite different among Merkel’s party allies. The parliamentarians have lost all desire to allow the Greek government to continue leading them around by the nose.

Juncker: I don’t believe that the Greeks would be able to lead German parliamentarians or the Commission president around by their noses.

SPIEGEL: The chancellor has said that, if Greek politicians would like to see who has the strongest nerves, they are welcome to do so.

Juncker: Ms. Merkel is right. But we aren’t just talking here about who has the better nerves. We are talking about the Greek people and particularly about those who find themselves in a very difficult situation.

SPIEGEL: Membership in the euro zone was long considered to be irreversible. Now, there is a distinct possibility that a country might leave the common currency area. What does that mean for Europe’s future?

Juncker: You are asking a theoretical question that I don’t want to consider. I want to prevent Greece’s exit. And we have come a long way. Think back to the year 2010, when the difficulties began. At the time, the danger was enormous that the contagion could spread to other countries. Had Greece left the euro then, it could very well have turned into a conflagration for the entire euro zone. Today, a Grexit would still have significant consequences, but the fear that it could cause the exit of additional member states has waned considerably. Nevertheless, the entire world would get the impression that the make-up of the euro zone can be changed. We have to avoid this impression.

SPIEGEL: Greece isn’t the only country that is making it difficult for you to keep the European community together. The British government would like to soon hold a referendum as to whether the country should remain a part of the EU or not. How great is the danger that Britain leaves the EU?

Juncker: We need a fair deal. The British know that Great Britain isn’t the only country with red lines, but that other member states have them too. Here in Brussels, we aren’t manic cheerleaders for Europe and the British are an intelligent people. We will find an agreement that is such that our friends in the United Kingdom will feel a desire to remain a lasting member of the European Union.

SPIEGEL: Yet the British prime minister would like to make some fundamental changes. He would like to remove the phrase “ever-closer union” from the preamble of the Lisbon Treaty, for example. What is your response?

Juncker: Why shouldn’t some in Europe go faster than the others? If the British don’t want to be part of this move, then we can make it possible for them, but in such a way that it doesn’t prevent others from going forward. That has long been the case with the currency union. Those who want to bind themselves closer together should be given the possibility to do so.

SPIEGEL: The presidents of Europe’s most important institutions have also been thinking of how the EU should develop. What are your suggestions?

Juncker: On the basis of the current treaties, the economic and monetary union is not yet complete. The entire world now wants to know from us how we intend to change this state of affairs. I, for example, believe that the euro zone could use a larger dose of parliamentary involvement, from both the European Parliament and from national parliaments. I work closely together with (European Parliament President) Martin Schulz. When it comes to smaller issues relating to party politics, we have different points of view. But when it comes to larger questions, we are partners and allies. We propose moving ahead in stages. Initially, the focus should be on what we can do within current rules to enhance our stability and to make improvements. Then we have to examine what we can achieve in the mid- and long-terms were we to make changes to European treaties. That, though, is not a pressing question.

SPIEGEL: Given the crisis in Greece, don’t you think such a step is necessary?

Juncker: Yes. Especially because of the crisis with Greece, we have to tell the world and ourselves where we are headed. The people of Europe are also becoming more skeptical and the gap between them and the European elite is widening. You would have to be blind not to see that. That is why Brussels cannot continue to focus on trivialities and burden people with regulations that can often be better handled on a local level. Europe has to show that it is able to take action on the larger, urgent problems: in foreign policy, with the immigration problems, with the economic challenges of the digital era. The European debate can no longer be limited to shower heads and olive-oil jugs.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Juncker, thank you for this interview!

Greece’s claim for war reparations from Germany explained

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Relations between Greece and Germany have worsened significantly since the election of Alexi Tsipras and his Syriza party to power in Athens. One of the key points of contention is whether Greece is still owed reparations for the damage suffered during the Nazi occupation during the Second World War.

Why do the Greeks want compensation?

The first argument relates to compensation for war crimes. During World War II, Germany and Italy conquered Greece in the spring of 1941. In addition to military casualties, around 20,000 civilians (exact numbers are fiercely disputed) were killed and whole villages where destroyed by the German troops – the massacres at Kalavryta and Distomo are particularly notorious.

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Distomo Memorial

The second part of the claims relate to direct and indirect financial costs suffered by Greece. At the time of the war, the Hague Convention, in place since since 1907, accepted that the occupied state should pay for living expenses and maintenance of occupying troops.

However the Greek treasury was subjected to costs of 476 million reichsmarks, higher even than the maximum previously agreed by the Axis powers of Germany and Italy. The enslaved Greek government had no choice but to hand over the cash which was used to fund Nazi campaigns in north Africa.

Kondomari
Kondomari massacre. Bundesarchiv

 

What was agreed after the war?

After the defeat of the Nazis, the Paris Peace Treaties of 1946 defined the war reparations that the various countries involved would have to pay.

Greece received $105 million from Italy (slightly more than the Soviet Union) and $45 million from Bulgaria. But Germany did not conclude such a peace treaty before 1990, since it had been split in two – West and East.

Nevertheless, the Paris Compensation Agreement established that Greece should receive 2.7% of total cash compensation paid by Germany and 4.35% of the transport industry, ships or other payment in kind. In effect this allocated $7.1 million at 1938 market value, around half of what Greece had demanded.

In February 1953 another pact, known as the London Agreement, was signed, which covered the general debts of defeated Germany to the winners – the Allies.

The prewar German debt was cut by about 50% and the time (West) Germany had avaliable to repay was extended to 30 years. As for the the actual war debt, this was determined separately for each country (usually there was an agreement for a 50% cut but there were exceptions, for example the “moral” debts of Germany to Israel were not reduced at all).

After 1953, West Germany came to various agreements with individual states to pay additional compensation. In 1960 Germany agreed with Greece to pay 115 million DM to Greek individuals who were victims of the German occupation.

In total, Germany has paid around EUR 72 billion in war reparations, according to Reuters.

What do the Greeks want now?

According to an article in German magazine Spiegel , it is estimated that Germany owes Greece to 108 billion euros to rebuild damaged infrastructure and 54 billion for the forced occupation loan extracted from the Greek government.

The total amount of EUR 162 billio would represent 80% of current GDP and a large chunk of the EUR 240 billion bailout given to Greece by the EU and IMF.

There is further debate over whether interest is also owed on these amounts.

What is the German position?

The German Government insists that there are no outstanding payments as everything was settled in a treaty leading up to the country’s reunification in 1990.

The London debt agreement deferred settlement of the reparations question including the repayment of war debts and contributions imposed by Germany during the war to a conference to be held after unification. But this conference never took place and the Germans have steadfastly refused to reopen the issue.

Instead, a so-called 2+4 Agreement was concluded, which settled the renunciation of reparations claims, but only with the four Great Powers (Britain, Russia, the US and France) among the former Allies.

This 2+4 Agreement could be seen to have superceded the London Agreement and reopened possibilities for states and individuals to revive claims which were put aside in 1953. However, Germany insists that Greece did not raise this interpretation at the time and accepted that the issues were closed.

Berlin also claims that, 70 years after the war, any such claims have long-since “lost their justificatory basis.”

On the other hand, Greeks say that their requirements are inalienable and exist no matter the time has passed. The Greeks say that they never gave up their legitimate rights to these reparations.

AGREEMENT ON REPARATION FROM GERMANY
(Paris, 14 January 1946)
The Governments of Albania, the United States of America, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, France, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Greece,India, Luxembourg, Norway, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, the Union of South Africa and Yugoslavia, in order to obtain an equitable distribution among themselves of the totalassets which, in accordance with the provisions of this Agreement and the provisions agreed upon at Potsdam on 1 August 1945 between the Governments of the United States of America, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, are or may be declared to be available as reparation from Germany (hereinafter referred to as German reparation), in order to establish an Inter-Allied Reparation Agency, and to settle an equitable procedure for the restitution of monetary gold, have agreed as follows:
READ AGREEMENT ON REPARATIONS FROM GERMANY HERE

READ TREATY ON THE FINAL SETTLEMENT WITH GERMANY HERE

What Syriza’s Victory Means for Europe

Independent Investigative Journalism Since 1995

From Editor Robert Parry: We founded Consortiumnews.com in 1995 as the first investigative news magazine on the Internet. The site was meant to be a home for important, well-reported stories and a challenge to the inept but dominant mainstream news media of the day.

As one of the reporters who helped expose the Iran-Contra scandal for the Associated Press in the mid-1980s, I was distressed by the silliness and propaganda that had come to pervade American journalism. I feared, too, that the decline of the U.S. press corps foreshadowed disasters that would come when journalists failed to alert the public about impending dangers.

Exclusive: The Greek election of the left-wing Syriza party sent shock waves across Europe with establishment parties fearing more populist resistance to years of austerity and to putting bankers first. The question now is whether European voters will follow Syriza’s lead, says Andrés Cala.

Traditionally “democracy” has meant government by the people, particularly their ability through voting to make their societies bend to their needs and interests. However, in recent decades, the word has undergone a significant redefinition, made to mean the right of business elites to operate with relative freedom.

That is why “democratic reform” in Eastern Europe has referred to the opening of former communist societies to “market forces,” even if that means the demise of popular safety-net programs. The same has held true across Europe during the Great Recession. What the powers-that-be have insisted on is repayment of debts owed to banks, even if that requires painful austerity and unemployment for average citizens.

1024px-Alexis_Tsipras_Syriza-300x200

Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece’s Syriza party. (Photo credit: FrangiscoDer)

 

 

What Syriza’s Victory Means for Europe
February 1, 2015
 

 

Exclusive: The Greek election of the left-wing Syriza party sent shock waves across Europe with establishment parties fearing more populist resistance to years of austerity and to putting bankers first. The question now is whether European voters will follow Syriza’s lead, says Andrés Cala.

Traditionally “democracy” has meant government by the people, particularly their ability through voting to make their societies bend to their needs and interests. However, in recent decades, the word has undergone a significant redefinition, made to mean the right of business elites to operate with relative freedom.

That is why “democratic reform” in Eastern Europe has referred to the opening of former communist societies to “market forces,” even if that means the demise of popular safety-net programs. The same has held true across Europe during the Great Recession. What the powers-that-be have insisted on is repayment of debts owed to banks, even if that requires painful austerity and unemployment for average citizens.
Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece’s Syriza party. (Photo credit: FrangiscoDer)

Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece’s Syriza party. (Photo credit: FrangiscoDer)

What happened in last week’s elections in Greece was, in many ways, a reclaiming of the old definition of democracy, which, of course, the Greeks are credited with inventing around the Fifth Century B.C.

Tired of an economy crippled by austerity — and frustrated by moral lectures about the responsibility to pay creditors — the Greek voters threw out the old political establishment and elected the leftist Syriza party which had highlighted popular demands for more economic stimulus and fewer cuts to government spending.

In effect, what the people of Greece were saying was that they want their political system to work for them, not for the banks and other elites. It is a message with strong appeal across other parts of Europe where the Wall Street collapse in 2008 and the ensuing Great Recession have caused years of suffering and despair.

The ruling elites and their supporters now worry that Syriza’s ascent is the inflexion point that may usher in popular resistance to the European Union’s austerity programs that will spread through Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and other countries tired of joblessness.

“The winds of change are blowing in Europe,” Pablo Iglesias, leader of the Podemos told Syriza supporters in Greece ahead of the election. “In Greece it’s called Syriza. In Spain it’s called Podemos” — “We can” in English.

Though Greece itself is small with a modest-sized economy and limited political influence, the message that Syriza is sending is potentially Continent-shaking. Syriza’s leaders are determined to renegotiate Greece’s credit terms, but they also are at pains to show they can govern responsibly and avoid radical moves that would do more damage to the Greeks than to the Continent’s elites.

A Continent-wide Revolt?

Yet, while Syriza may have many sympathizers especially around Europe’s long-suffering periphery, the populist anti-austerity drive has many powerful opponents, too. Germany, with its strong economy, has been most insistent on the poorer countries repaying their debts but Germany’s position is also supported by conservative governments ruling Spain, Portugal and Ireland that have humbly accepted austerity.

Those governments, which are facing their own challenges from Syriza-like movements, were the first to deny Athens any flexibility. These conservative parties are worried less about Greece than empowering their own anti-austerity challengers by admitting mistakes.

Other European leaders, along with most of the media and international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, are resorting to fear-mongering by grouping this new, still undefined Left in the same basket with extreme-right, ultranationalist, anti-immigrant political movements, creating a frightening image of these populist parties.

Such tactics have worked in the past with many Europeans cautious about appeals for radical change because of the Continent’s troubled history with extremist movements over the centuries. The European establishment offers a comforting sense of order but that appeal has eroded along with the living standards of millions of citizens and popular patience is growing thin.

And, though Syriza is regarded as a leftist party outside of Europe’s recent mainstream, it represents an anti-austerity bloc that is actually rather moderate, pro-European and inclusive. What this bloc is demanding is serious reform in how the Continent’s economy is managed to concentrate on making life better for average people rather than comfier for the rich and powerful.

Europe’s Right has exploited the economic pain in another way, by focusing on how immigration from the Middle East and poorer parts of Europe has taken jobs from the white traditional citizens of European countries. But those messages from extreme-right parties, like UKIP in the U.K. and the National Front in France, represent a lesser threat to Europe’s establishment because most Europeans don’t favor these extremist appeals.

The European establishment is more worried about the anti-austerity bloc. Germany and northern European countries – along with the Continent’s business elites – are alarmed that the anti-austerity parties will unite into a bloc able to disrupt first the politics in various nations and then elections in the European Union.

These anti-austerity forces could appeal to centrist voters as Syriza’s victory in Greece and polls in other countries have shown. The internal politics in Spain, Italy and France – much larger countries than Greece – could lead to an alliance that, given their economic weight and population, could push back on austerity in the 19-member Eurozone.

How Radical?

Parties like Syriza and Podemos have surged in popularity by siphoning off votes from traditional center-left, social-democratic parties, which have generally accepted the austerity demands. To a lesser extent, some center-right fence-straddlers have also switched to these new populist movements.

In Spain, Podemos is edging ahead in a three-way sprint with the ruling conservative Popular Party and the Socialist Party, with municipal, regional and national elections starting in March and ending in December. The Podemos base is young, including activists who ignited the global “Occupy” movement in May 2011 when protesters spontaneously took over Madrid’s most important squares.

The party was started less than a year ago by a group of university professors who were involved as advisers in Latin America’s Bolivarian movement, especially in Venezuela. Traditional parties, even those to its left, accuse Podemos of being Chavista, i.e., inspired by Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez.

But Podemos’s broad proposals (details are still pending) are not so radical. They reject the notion of a Chavista-like regime in Spain and don’t intend to flout the country’s financial obligations. But they do want an overhaul of economic policies. And despite mounting attacks from Spain’s establishment, Podemos appears to be gaining momentum after Syriza’s victory.

The Irish cousin of Syriza and Podemos is Sinn Féin, which has recently taken the lead in opinion polls. In Italy, the center-left government, which until now has been the most vocal in the EU against German-imposed austerity, is facing an internal rebellion from those who want it to take an even harder line.

The situations in France and Portugal are more fluid with the Socialists discredited and the Left splintered but increasingly anti-austerity. Perhaps the biggest uncertainty is France. It won’t hold elections any time soon, but the Parti de Gauche is rising. If Podemos gets enough leverage in Spain and Italy’s government moves further to the left, there might just be enough political muscle to confront Germany and offer an alternative to its austerity policies.

“The German risk is a new form of conservatism which is the fetishism of budget balance, the fascination for debt reduction, which is also the symptom of an aging country,” French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron said, signaling the French Socialists might climb on the anti-austerity bandwagon.

But Berlin and northern European capitals are going through opposite political realities, with their constituents demanding more austerity from the rest of Europe. This bloc remains the most powerful when it comes to decision-making, among other things because it has the support of the conservative governments in Spain, Portugal and Ireland.

A Edge to the Populists

Over the next year or so, the electoral cycles also favor the anti-austerity parties, though perhaps not enough to oust the ruling elites and replace the current mindset but still enough to force greater flexibility on debt and budget issues.

This idea of making governments serve the people’s needs rather than the interests of the creditor class is spreading outside the Eurozone as well, including the U.K., the Democratic Party in the U.S., and even in the EU Parliament and among some IMF economists.

The democratic sea change that appears to be sweeping across Europe is also the result of an ongoing generational change as well as a sign of deep divisions in the establishment that have been exposed by the Great Recession. In essence, this movement is calling for Europe’s democracy to be more populist, more direct, more in the service of the people, less obedient to the ruling elites.

While the resistance to austerity arguably started from isolated flickers across the Continent – resentment toward the harsh cuts in the welfare state and the stubborn levels of record unemployment – it has grown into a political firestorm across southern Europe.

But the demands of this nascent anti-austerity bloc are not revolutionary. In short, it seeks to reboot the system, not to replace it. The leaders don’t pitch an alternative order, but rather ways to correct how policies under the existing framework are implemented, with the ultimate goal of rebuilding a system in which governments care more for the common citizens than the banks and the well-to-do.

The movement favors paying back debts, but not at the cost of economic growth, suggesting that payments be stretched out so more public monies can be spent on stimulus to get Western economies out of the prolonged slump that followed the Crash of 2008.

Or as Thomas Piketty, the star economist and best-selling author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, said in an interview: “It’s an act of historical amnesia to tell southern European countries that they have to pay all their debt, down to the last cent, with zero inflation.”

Of course, Europe’s establishment is hoping Syriza’s victory and the burst of enthusiasm for similar movements is just a fad and that the long-awaited economic recovery will finally arrive and begin to trickle down to average Europeans with everything going back to normal. But these elites may be underestimating just how deeply rooted this democratic awakening is.

When one of the top Podemos leaders was asked about the durability of this movement, he said: “If we disappear tomorrow, we will have taught the elite a good lesson. They will be afraid. Just by existing, Podemos has demonstrated the peoples’ desire for a democratic regeneration, it has unearthed like never before the need for rulers to be held accountable.”

Andrés Cala is an award-winning Colombian journalist, columnist and analyst specializing in geopolitics and energy. He is the lead author of America’s Blind Spot: Chávez, Energy, and US Security.