Europe's winter of discontent

Social unrest has rocked several European countries in recent months as a result of the global economic crisis. The strikes and protests are likely to continue as unemployment rises.

Protests, strikes and riots have shaken Europe this winter as the global economic crisis hit the continent particularly hard.

France faced a massive general strike and more than 200 demonstrations and protests across the country on January 29, with the country’s eight largest unions protesting the government’s handling of the economic crisis. In neighbouring Germany, railway workers’ unions Transnet and GDBA held a one-day warning strike. Similar social unrest occurred in Ukraine, Turkey and Russia at various times in 2008; Greece saw riots in December 2008, and unrest hit Latvia, Lithuania and Bulgaria in January. In Iceland, the coalition government collapsed on January 26 under the pressure of almost uninterrupted social dissent and protest since the country went broke at the beginning of October 2008; the government likely will be replaced by a coalition including staunchly left-wing parties.

Europe’s geography is at the heart of political division on the continent and, ironically, also is the core reason why ideas move so easily across the continent. Europe has many natural barriers, but there are also waterways that facilitate trade in goods and ideas across the continent’s divisions.

Europe’s long coastline (if unfurled from all the fjords, seas and bays, it is as long as the Equator), combined with an extremely complex river system and multiple bays and sheltered harbours, facilitates trade and communication. However, the multiple peninsulas, large islands and mountain chains have prevented any one large army, nation or ethnicity from completely dominating the entire continent, despite its good trade routes via the waterways. The geography of Europe is therefore conducive to multiple political entities that are defensible enough to resist complete domination by a regional hegemon, yet integrated enough to encourage the rapid spread of intellectual (cultural, religious, social, technological or economic) developments on the continent.

Ideas underpinning social unrest and dissent can therefore spread over the continent like a swarm of locusts, crossing physical barriers that armies could not, feeding upon – and thus gaining strength from – local sources of angst that are different in each country. Yet the political fragmentation of Europe ensures that not only are the local contexts all different, but that the local responses to them differ as well.

A history of unrest

At the heart of the broad revolutionary movements in Europe's past are three key aspects that in one way or another usually align to create conditions that allow social angst and malaise to spread from one part of Europe to the entire continent, and sometimes even the rest of the world:

Technology: Technological change allows for new modes of communication that either weaken government control over information or facilitate greater mobilization of disconnected masses (or both). The 1848 "Spring of Nations" unrest, for example, coincided with the advent of mass printing made possible by the rotary printing press invented in the 1830s. The Great Depression coincided with the use of radio on a mass level, and television was a relatively new medium for the masses during widespread protests in the summer of 1968. Each of these technologies decreased the cost of reaching out to large numbers of people and allowed for a faster transmission of revolutionary thought from one corner of Europe to another. In 2009, technologies such as Twitter and Facebook and 3G wireless networks can similarly decrease the costs of grassroots revolutionary campaigns. They can cheaply connect anti-globalization activists, radical anarchists or various European right-wing movements (of which there are many) to organize simultaneous protests and share their tactics.

Demographics: At the end of the day, the 1968 unrest was about youth. The large baby boomer generation came of age and felt constrained by the "establishment” that they saw as benefiting their parents’ generation. The demographic situation at the time was the same across the continent and thus facilitated solidarity among Europe’s youth. The 1848 revolutions had also been in part about demographics, although at that time it was about population movements, with the rural population moving into the just-industrialized cities. These early workers’ movements linked with the early capitalists to demand political and economic changes from the aristocracy. In 2009, demographics play a different role. Europe is not facing an explosion of youth; it is in fact facing a dearth of youth, and there are no large population movements from the countryside to the city as there were in 1848. However, Europe’s discontents today include large pools of migrant workers and the descendants of migrants who do not feel connected to European societies at large. The unemployment rate among France’s youth of immigrant descent, for example, is nearly 50 per cent. The banlieue riots of 2006 are an expression of this angst.

Economics: Economic collapse or drastic economic change can also spur revolutionary movements. In 1848, the shock of industrialization caused massive redistribution of capital from the aristocracy to the urban mercantilist class, who felt economically empowered but still politically subject to hereditary rule. The Great Depression was of course about the collapse of the international economic system and the effects this had on particular states. The middle classes of the 1930s were left destitute and open to manipulation by extreme leftist or fascist regimes. In 1968, the youth protested because of the uncertain job market ahead and the workers protested for greater wealth-sharing with the middle classes, who had largely benefited during Europe’s post-World War II boom. The current global recession is of course having negative effects on the entire European continent. The sparks for the majority of protests and social unrest, while varied at the local level (in Bulgaria, protests were prompted by the natural gas cut-off; in Greece, they were triggered when police shot a protesting youth), are at the end of the day rooted in the uncertainty about the economic well-being of the population.

Revolutions of 2009?

Of course, massive social protest does not necessarily lead to "revolution,” and there are differences between "political change” and "regime change.” The former refers to the collapse of a particular government in power, and the latter to a complete change in the political system of a nation.

Real "regime change” occurs when things literally fall apart, as they did during the Great Depression. This period saw significant gross domestic product (GDP) contraction across Europe. Between 1929 and 1932, France’s GDP contracted 14.6 per cent and Germany’s contracted 15.8 per cent. (The US economy contracted 28.2 per cent over the same period.) These figures are far beyond the GDP contraction expected for 2009 and beyond (more on that below).

The severe economic contraction of the early 1930s – combined with novel techniques of media control and mass social organization made possible by technological change – allowed fascism to rise by offering hope and (even more important) direction to hordes of unemployed middle-class citizens searching for inspiration and protection from the Radical Left. Fascism gave the desperate and hopeless middle classes something to hold on to — a vision of a romanticized history more appealing than either their actual past or their present (in which they were hungry and poor).

These drastic conditions do not exist in Europe today. It is true that French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his fear that the "Greek syndrome” (referring to the December riots across Greece) will lead to the rise of the "spectre of 1968 haunting Europe.” However, no matter how poor the economic forecast is for Europe, it is nowhere near the complete, sustained collapse of the Great Depression. Most European governments are currently forecasting GDP contraction of between 1.5 and 2 per cent for 2009, with almost immediate recovery for 2010 and beyond (only Spain, Portugal, Latvia and Lithuania are currently projected to face GDP contraction in 2010).

There is therefore still no indication that massive regime change or the collapse of the European social system is before us. Yet conditions certainly exist for massive social unrest in Europe in 2009. Stratfor expects the following countries to be hot spots of social unrest in Europe (all economic figures are from European Commission forecasts):

Greece: The massive protests seen in December 2008 could again flare up as the government struggles with a high budget deficit in 2009 (projected at 3.7 per cent of GDP). If the government fails to raise cash through the international bond market (Standard & Poor’s cut its rating on Jan. 14), it may have to resort to unpopular tax hikes. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis is already facing a tenuous hold on power, and his government has been rocked by allegations of corruption and incompetence.

Latvia: With one of the poorest forecasts for 2009 and 2010 (GDP is expected to contract by nearly 7 per cent in 2009 and 2.4 per cent in 2010), Latvia is looking at a crash landing from its boom years in the early 2000s. Protests in January turned violent over the government’s response to the economic crisis.

Lithuania: Newly elected Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius heads a three-party coalition which only has a three-seat majority in the parliament. Kubilius’ intention to raise taxes in order to combat the budget deficit (projected to be more than 3 per cent GDP in 2009) sparked violent protests in January. Presidential elections in May could trigger more protests. Unemployment is expected to rise to nearly 9 per cent in 2009 (from 4.3 per cent in 2007).

Bulgaria: Parliamentary elections set for June could spark more protests. Neither the government nor the opposition has much support at the moment, with civil society groups protesting high corruption and alleged incompetence of the political system as a whole.

Hungary: Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany already faced a serious challenge to his rule shortly after his re-election with widespread rioting and protests in October 2006. Hungary was one of the first European economies to be hit in 2008. International Monetary Fund loan conditions could force the government to cut social programs, which could very well prompt further protests against Gyrucsany.

Czech Republic: The government in power does not even have a true majority in the parliament. Thus far, Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek has been able to restrain the worst effects of the crisis, but his tenuous hold on power is an invitation for the opposition to prod for weaknesses.

Spain: The country’s construction industry in a complete state of collapse, and the disaster in Spain’s housing market is forecast to lead to unemployment of nearly 20 per cent in 2009 (and possibly as high as 25 per cent by 2010). The budget deficit is also expected to balloon to more than 6 per cent of GDP in 2009 (from a surplus of 2.2 per cent in 2007). There are no elections expected until 2012, which could prompt civil society to take matters into its own hands.

France: Sarkozy’s proposed economic reforms prompted strikes in 2007, and his handling of the economic crisis triggered a general strike on January 29. France’s GDP is expected to contract by 1.8 per cent in 2009. While Sarkozy’s hold on power is safe (unless something drastic happens), Stratfor expects protests to continue in 2009, potentially coalescing into a serious movement that includes discontented workers and Muslim riots in the banlieus.

Italy: Strikes and protests by unions and left-wing groups are expected. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right government will face a lot of pressure, especially since it is unlikely to turn to international bond markets to raise capital and will probably look to raise taxes instead. Immigrants could also face further attacks from neo-Nazi and radical right groups.

Germany: Chancellor Angela Merkel likely will win elections in September, albeit by relying on the centrist Free Democratic Party for support. The run up to the elections could prompt left-wing parties such as Die Linke to join with the unions to protest Merkel’s handling of the economic crisis. Radical right-wing groups and neo-Nazi elements in eastern parts of the country could heighten their attacks against immigrants.

Stratfor provides intelligence services for individuals, global corporations, and divisions of the US and foreign governments around the world.