The Magazine

Another Spectre Is Haunting Europe

The street may replace the voting booth as the way to force change.

Mar 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 23 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

As the worldwide slump deepens so must worries that the economic crisis will spill out onto the streets. In December, France's president Nicolas Sarkozy warned that les évènements of May 1968 could repeat themselves, and not only in the land of the torched auto. That same month IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn used the possibility of social unrest--in rich countries as well as poor--to drum up support for aggressive fiscal expansion. Now it's reported that the leaders of the EU's member states will spend part of their March summit discussing signs of growing disorder across their increasingly embattled union. After weeks in which Greece came close to anarchy, and riots broke out in Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, and Lithuania (and, just outside the EU, in newly destitute Iceland), they are right to be concerned.

After roughly three decades of growth, European living standards are imploding, and once-rising expectations are dropping down with them. It's the sense of something lost that hurts the most. People can deal with living without that which they never had (which is why so many dirt poor countries languish without any meaningful regime change), but when prosperity vanishes, rage will go hand-in-hand with disappointment, frustration, and despair. Extra-legal protest, whether it's antiglobalization riots, spasms of racial or ethnic violence, or the repeated recourse to highway blockade, is already a part of the European political landscape, east and west. Under the circumstances it's hard to see how an economic slowdown on the current scale can continue without expanding this miserable tradition. The only question is where. Riga today. London tomorrow? Hamburg? Lille? Madrid? Dublin? A glance at the business pages suggests there are plenty of places to choose from.

It's a sad commentary on the situation Europe's leaders are now contemplating that some of the best clues as to what might happen there can be found in China and Russia. This reflects how the increasing reach of the EU within its member states has left the individual nations less free to respond to the demands of their peoples at a time of distress and imposed upon them a soft authoritarianism that increases the chance of disorder.

Start with China where, despite the extraordinary economic expansion of recent years, the promise of prosperity has spread far further than its achievement. According to some reports, there were nearly 80,000 "major" incidents of unrest in 2007, an inevitable response to the dislocations of helter-skelter growth in a People's Republic where hundreds of millions of the People have been left behind, deprived of what scant security they once enjoyed, and given no legal way of making themselves heard. And that was in the good times.

Since 2007, growth has slowed dramatically to an annualized rate of perhaps 6-7 percent. That's some way below the near double-digit pace usually thought necessary to sustain China's vast army of migrant workers (some 20 million of whom are said to have lost their jobs in the downturn). More ominous still are the large numbers of new university graduates: articulate, ambitious, and now unemployed. There is a good reason that the Chinese regime has put in place a $600 billion stimulus package. It's the same as the one that has led some of the country's elite to worry openly about the prospects for social peace.

There are at least some (faint and fiercely disputed) signs that all those billions might be having an effect, but no such comfort is available in Russia. The ruble is sharply down, and the economic growth that legitimized Putin's rule has dwindled to nothing. This winter has seen protests in Moscow, Vladivostok, and other cities, events largely unthinkable a year ago. Like the Chinese, the Russians are throwing money at the problem. And, like the Chinese, they are tightening up internal security. The rigidities of authoritarian rule may ultimately provoke a violent reaction, but so long as these regimes retain a monopoly of force and a willingness to use it, disorder can generally be stamped out: until, of course, the revolutionary moment. But that moment still seems far away.

In a broad collection of countries to Russia's west, the situation looks more immediately dangerous. These states are all nominally democratic, but the extent to which democracy, and the shared trust that must go with it, have really taken root is not only unclear, but also about to be put to a brutal test. Emerging from beneath the rubble of the Soviet imperium has been a long and wearying process, marked by setbacks and punctuated by crises, but somehow nearly always sustained by the dream of better times to come and, more practically, massive transfusions of Western money, both public and private. That was then. GDPs across the region are in free fall (if you prefer another cliché, the governor of Latvia's central bank has offered up "clinically dead" as a description of his country's economy), a situation that may finally sink the hulks of the Western European banks already perilously exposed to this part of the world and not, therefore, in a position to come up with any fresh cash.

Economic collapse and fragile democracies are a fissile combination, and that's before considering the opportunity they present for geopolitical mischief-making. The Ukrainian state is politically weak, ethnically divided, facing tricky elections, and, many analysts reckon, on the edge of insolvency. Under these promising circumstances Moscow would be most unlikely to object to a destabilizing riot or two in a neighbor whose independence it still resents. And the same holds true for the Baltics. After all, the Kremlin was widely thought to be behind disturbances (unrelated to the economy) in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, in 2007.

But while Kiev, Riga, and Sofia may seem reassuringly remote, believing that the more established democracies in the western half of the continent will necessarily escape disorder is, as Sarkozy, Strauss-Kahn, and those fretting European premiers undoubtedly understand, to ignore the lessons of the past. Optimists like to see Iceland as a special case, and, yes, Greece too. They might also argue that the January protests in France were nothing more than business as usual. But all these supposedly discrete disturbances were beginning to look like a pattern even before a wave of wildcat strikes in the U.K. (protesting the importation of cheap foreign workers from other EU countries). Expectations are being dashed in the west of Europe just as much as they are in the east, and there will be consequences. To be sure, the nations of the EU's heartland are far better off (and, critically, have more generous social security nets) than those that so recently escaped Soviet rule, but a dashed expectation is a dashed expectation wherever it falls to earth.

In some ways the darkening of a once bright future may be more difficult to deal with for populations like those living in Western Europe where truly hard times (and the psychological mechanisms to cope with them) are scarcely more than a folk memory. Making matters worse, social cohesiveness within these countries has been badly battered, most notably by mass immigration and, more happily, the greater opportunities for individual autonomy that affluence has hitherto brought in its wake. The idea that, at some level, "we're all in this together"--a vital safety valve for a society under stress--may no longer be available for use.

Adding further poison to the mix is the catastrophic effect of EU membership on the relationship between Europeans and their political class. The idea that the governing should listen to the governed underpins any successful democracy. It does not underpin the EU--as those naughty no-voting Irish are just the latest to discover. National politicians, neutered by a confederation where most important decisions are taken within an opaque and remote political structure that is subject to but the barest pretense of democratic control, now function as little more than messenger boys or enforcers for the real bosses in Brussels.

This raises rather awkward questions as to what Europe's ballot boxes are actually for, questions that may turn very ugly indeed when the bread has gone stale, the circuses have shut down, and recovery remains elusive. Fortified perhaps both by images of disturbances elsewhere and the knowledge of the spinelessness that is a not-so-guilty not-so-secret of so many European governments, the peoples of the EU might well conclude that the street is a better way to force through change than the voting booth. Throw in the organizing capabilities of the Internet, relatively high levels of unemployment amongst the articulate and well-educated, and the rallying impact of a populist cause, and it's easy to see what will come if the slump lingers on.

No clear thread yet runs through the discontent now rippling across the EU, which remains mostly of the throw-the-bums-out variety. Yet in the midst of a debacle typically blamed (we could debate how fairly) on capitalist excess, a Trotskyite postman is the second most popular political figure in France and a party with its roots in the Communist dictatorship is polling at around 15 percent in Germany. If economies continue to spiral down, anxiety, uncertainty, and anger are bound to assume more concrete ideological forms, forms that are unlikely to be pretty.

Sometimes history repeats itself as tragedy, not farce.

Andrew Stuttaford, who writes frequently about cultural and political issues, works in the international financial markets.