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
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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.