By Geoffrey Smith
April 15, 2015

It was all set to be one of the dullest press conferences in recent times at the European Central Bank: our policies are working, the economy is recovering, but (sterner voice) structural reforms are still etc…

Then along came Josephine Witt, in a shower of paper and confetti and a t-shirt saying “End ECB Dick-tatorship”, a phrase she repeated loudly and cheerfully until she was finally carried off by Mario Draghi’s flat-footed security guards, still grinning broadly and making victory signs.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether she was protesting against the ECB’s policies (she’d tweeted recently in support of Greece and against the austerity policies imposed upon it by the ECB and others), or about the lack of women in the central bank’s upper echelons. Women have been consistently under-represented at the Frankfurt-based institution since 1999 and even now, only two out of 25 members of the ECB’s governing council are female.

With such eminently good causes to protest about, it was something of a disappointment when copies of the paper she threw at Draghi surfaced on Twitter. These appeared to contain nothing beyond garbled anti-capitalist ramblings, poorly formatted and execrably spelt (even allowing for the fact that Witt is German, it’s not clear why she would mis-spell ‘Frankfurt’). Still, at least there were no Powerpoint slides attached.

(For those who are really interested, the ‘butterfly’ reference at the bottom harks back to flyers posted by the French Resistance during World War 2.)

Fräulein Witt has previous: she’d crashed a Christmas mass at Cologne Cathedral with the words “I am God” painted across her naked torso (in support of the right to abortion, she told the court later).

Witt belongs to the Femen movement, a women’s rights group that grew out of a campaign to stop sex tourism in Ukraine, but which has spread its wings in recent years. You may have seen them bombing Vladimir Putin as he visited the Hanover fair with German Chancellor Angela Merkel two years ago, or more recently heckling Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the disgraced former head of the International Monetary Fund, as he arrived at his trial in Lille for being part of a prostitution ring earlier this year.

As for Draghi? The Italian was ushered off the stage for a minute and returned to complete the press conference in typically assured style. But this was always going to be an easy press conference for him, with the economy looking in much better shape thanks to the bond-buying program the bank launched in earnest in March, and the final showdown with Greece still, in all probability, over two months away.

For the few in the room who were still listening, rather than checking the viral internet reaction, the message was unchanged from six weeks ago: QE will continue until the risk of deflation is banished and it’s up to Greece to decide whether it wants to do the necessary to stay in the Eurozone (Ms. Witt, of course, would respectfully beg to differ).

Credit to the young student for keeping her protest cheerful and good-humored. But there will be some pretty serious questions asked inside the ECB as to how she managed to get so close to Draghi. It’s only a month since the ECB was the focus of truly violent protests by anti-capitalists, and Draghi could just as easily have been facing an acid attack or a plastic blade, instead of confetti.

The ECB later issued a statement saying that “Like all visitors to the ECB, she went through an identity check, metal detector and x-ray of her bag, before entering the building.”

It also said that “Security staff took immediate and effective action”– but the video evidence flatly contradicts the “immediate” part of that.

Normally, the ECB would only let accredited journalists into its press conferences. The bank said Witt had “registered as a journalist for an organization she does not represent.” When asked whether she had registered under her real name, the bank couldn’t immediately comment.

 

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