Getting off our knees?

As austerity bites across Europe, Leigh Phillips surveys the resistance

November 29, 2010
6 min read


Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.

‘Austerity strikes roil Europe’ – Christian Science Monitor; ‘Anti-austerity protests sweep across Europe’ – Associated Press; ‘European cities hit by anti-austerity protests’ – BBC. 

From the nigh-on identical, panicked headlines that raced around the world on 29 September, the day of the pan-European day of action organised by the European Trades Union Congress, you would have thought that the entire continent was aflame with civil unrest, furious at the measures introduced by our governments – a sacrifice of the public sector, labour rights, social benefits, hurled into the volcano to slake the anger of the markets. 

Perhaps there was a glint of something to it. Only weeks later, France would be paralysed by strikes and refinery blockades that left the country days away from running entirely out of petrol. Those clichéd, magic four integers, 1968, tumbled trembling once more from the lips of commentators and politicos. Greece, on the surface, appears to be tearing itself apart. One report in September from that most sober of news wires, Reuters, quoted a German economist from the Munich-based Ifo Institute for Economic Research, warning how ‘political fatigue with austerity policies typically sets in in the second year and could yet push Greece to default or the brink of civil war’.

And it is true that there was something historic about that autumn day. While the protests may have been for the most part Duke-of-York efforts (‘He marched them up to the top of the the hill and then he marched them down again…’), for the first time ever, the people of Europe, their unions, student organisations, political groups and NGOs stood up together, not as citizens of their national governments, but as the subjects of a continental, unelected administration that has chosen to make them the ones to pay for the crisis. 

In January 2009, for a few weeks, there appeared to be an infection of unrest spreading across a number of European states, in and out of the EU. The worst street disturbances for 50 years in Reykjavik – where a tenth of the country’s population had participated in mass protests and riots – had resulted in the fall of Iceland’s centre-right government. In anti-government clashes in Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Greece in the same month, economic discontent mixed with local issues to erupt in violence. Following riots in Vilnius and Riga, a pair of diplomats told this reporter that EU ambassadors in Brussels were passing each other regular updates, an ‘intensive share of information’ on the unrest to see whether it was ‘part of a social trend’ or a flash in the pan.

The same month, the Times carried an analysis piece entitled ‘New age of rebellion and riot stalks Europe’, while Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF, predicted that the crisis would produce social upheaval: ‘You’ve had some strikes that look like normal, usual strikes, but it may worsen in the coming months.’ Asked which countries were most at risk, Strauss-Kahn mentioned Hungary, Ukraine, Latvia and Belarus. ‘It can be my own country [France], the UK, it can be eastern Europe,’ he continued. ‘The situation is really, really serious.’

Two years into the crisis however, most analysts are now saying there is little likelihood of leaders retreating from austerity, as they fear the EU, IMF and market pressures more. 

For all the inches of newsprint devoted to the demonstrations and strikes, we have to recognise that dans les coulisses, in the corridors and backrooms of the chancelleries of Europe, diplomats and ministers may remain unsettled but they are no longer holding their breath. They return from their palaces and Brussels summits chauffeur-driven to their homes to sleep soundly. Sarkozy is not about to lose control of the country and escape the barricades of Paris by helicopter to the safety of Baden Baden in Germany, like De Gaulle had to do one May day some 42 years ago.

The clearest signal of this is the opening in recent weeks of a discussion about a rescheduling of Greece’s loan repayment. Such a discourse would not have been countenanced if the markets did not believe the government had managed to hold the line.

The French government and its pensions legislation have emerged intact despite the most significant popular movement since 1995’s wave of general strikes. The union leadership has begun to wind down actions now that the law has been approved, saying they will not threaten ‘parliamentary legitimacy’. Rolling one-day general strikes in Greece – eight this year – may be the sites of regular clashes with riot police, but they have left the ruling centre-left party Pasok unmoved. The Greek union leaders, some of whom hold senior positions within the party, are careful not to endanger ‘their’ government. 

One senior European Commission official recently told this reporter after being asked about events in Greece: ‘Of course the unrest is a concern, but things are not as bad as they could be. You know, [prime minister] Papandreou is still popular. I think people recognise there is no alternative.’

The Irish and Portuguese governments may soon collapse as a result of the fall-out from the crisis, but whoever replaces them is unlikely to propose any radically different programme. European leaders believe that unemployment and lack of a coherent opposition will allow them to keep on course. The two countries with the most politicised citizenry, bellwethers Greece and France, are watched closely for signs of a climbdown, but in both cases, the governments have been as successful as any other in pushing through major structural reforms.

Two years into the crisis and as the UK heads into its own battles with austerity, it is time for an assessment of the struggle so far. And we must be brutally honest. The stakes are too high for us to simply raise our red pom-poms and cheerlead the protests. A debate must be opened. We have to ask: ‘Are we winning yet?’


Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.


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