The year 2011 was one of vast, multifaceted change for Europe. While the unfolding debt crisis dominated news headlines, European citizens were affected by a wide range of issues. They adapted to growing threats of home-grown terrorism, consistent fear of the impending recession, and the penetration of the small, yet fiercely connotative, acronym “IMF” as a staple in the EU vocabulary.
While the full and lingering effects of these events will be visible in the years to come, we are beginning to see a different political landscape across Europe.
Since the inception of the EU, from a geopolitical perspective, the balance of power has laid with the North. With further EU integration, the perception today remains the same: strong powerful northern countries bear the burden of economically weak southern states. The debt crisis has deepened considerably this past year, which has led to a reaffirmation of this perception.
Alongside their combined role as the driving force behind the EU and integration, France and Germany also have the two largest economies in terms of GDP. Their vast influence comes with a responsibility to create a strong, stable, and prosperous union that reflects the needs of all countries and not just their own.
As the southern states drown in debt, their fates are decided in the north. Even as proponents of integration, this hints at an erosion of the democratic process.
The economic burdens of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece in continental debt ratings, currency valuation and threat of default have resulted in a lack of decision-making power and autonomy of these southern states.
Of course, the economic health is at stake, but is sovereignty worth sacrificing for the greater good of the EU?
In this whole mess, the common EU citizen is continuously forgotten. The Franco-German demand for austerity bills to be pushed through southern European parliaments sacrifices their interests. A founding principle of EU integration is the interest of the common citizen, but this has been forgotten in the current time of crisis.
The greatest concern for both France and Germany is the prospect of higher debt costs after having their debt downgraded. It is in their interests to seek a quick and immediate resolution to the debt struggles of Greece and Italy in order to protect themselves.
While this may seem logical at first glance, the repercussions in the south will arguably be the most difficult to deal with in the decade to come. Austerity measures are largely unpopular as the numerous general strikes have shown in Greece, Italy, and Spain, and this must be acknowledged.
Along with the French and Germans, the IMF is forcibly feeding the unpopular austerity measures to the debt stricken states. The IMF can offer a quick fix for these countries by providing them with sufficient funds, but these loans are accompanied with a condition that the countries adhere to austerity bills. Here, balancing national budgets becomes just one of a number of pressing national concerns for these countries.
Once debts have been repaid and debt costs brought down, capital markets will be temporarily relieved, while the people will just be beginning to bear the brunt of the consequences. Now, constant unemployment, insufficient job creation, poverty, lack of spending, and a disintegration of society and quality of life as a whole will ensue.
The bottom line is that the policies being pushed by the IMF will curb future economic growth. Unpopular measures introduced at the hands of an outside organization are undemocratic and in this situation, local government is weakened.
In the case of Italy and Greece, it seems that there is no choice other than to involve the IMF, especially with the political pressure from the North and the eyes of the world upon each government. Here, a decision taken with interests of the EU and not the citizens of the affected countries becomes a sure way to lose domestic government credibility and to forget the principles of democracy.
Another matter to consider is the potential loss of financial sovereignty, as the imposition of harsh penalties for member states breaking deficit limits is under debate. Again, the slow surrender of domestic responsibility to a central EU body will slowly chip away at the sovereignty of member states.
This debt crisis has also given rise to leadership changes in both Italy and Greece, an alteration that has occurred without holding general elections. In Greece, there has been a move to the centre-right from the socialist party of Papandreou, who stepped down from power. With Papademos as the newly appointed leader, the country challenges its own democratic values, as the new government was formed by politicians and not through popular vote.
In Italy, Mario Monti, the man appointed to run the country, is an economist, appointed based on the view that his economic knowledge and experience is necessary for Italy’s economic stability. Although Monti has promised to step down once this crisis is resolved, the situation counters basic democratic values.
Yet the question still remains: how can prime minister-designates pass unpopular legislation that have devastating economic measures for the people in the years to come?
Europe’s economic uncertainty is arguably encouraging the prevalent radical fear of immigration and the Islamification of Europe, a fear that is exemplified in the aftermath of the Oslo bombings by home-grown terrorist Anders Breivik.
Such fear crept into mainstream European politics over the last decade, but has gained more support of late. The region’s economic uncertainty has led to calls for protectionist measures and a renewed sense of nationalism in certain European states.
Far right anti-immigration and non-tolerant ideas can be seen to be gaining support, which has been fuelled by economic uncertainty. In a time of fear over job creation, limited future growth, and a decreasing quality of life, nationalist protectionist behaviour has profound effects on the European political scene.
An affront to Europe’s democracy is alienating immigrants who have resided in Europe for decades and are citizens of the same stature as the rest of the population, a challenge that must be addressed in the following years.
However, the positive aspects of Europe’s political scene must not be overlooked, and are found in Spain’s changed political sphere. A feeling of misrepresentation spread throughout Spain during the summer months, the result of which was the fall of Zapatero’s socialist party, which had been in power since 2004.
The popular “DemocraciaRealya” movement had a strong influence in the momentum leading up to this change in loyalty. These demands for better representation by all levels of society and demographics go back to the founding principles of democracy.
Protesting youths were the spark of this movement in Spain, a demographic that will bear the brunt of economic difficulties in the decades to come. Heavy cuts to social programs and education, as well as the lack of practical youth integration in the job market has led to massive youth unemployment in Southern Europe, France and the UK.
There is a definite disconnect between youth representation in government and the real needs of the youth. This reality became evident in the London riots this past summer, which were fuelled by discontent and the government-youth relationship gap. It is easy to blame a few thugs or violent youths for the problem but the root causes exist in a myriad of factors that include rising education costs, lack of new opportunities, and social neglect.
Since 2008, the combination of such factors resulted in social decay in the UK, which culminated in an explosion during the summer months. Youths are left with a difficult future, a fact that is directly tied to government oversight of this demographic.
It is more than coincidence that youth are at the centre of two defining movements of the summer of 2011. The tension between riot police and youths has risen considerably since the start of the economic crisis due to their draconian role.
Heavy handed police is not unique to the UK and Greece, but has also been encountered elsewhere. Italy has had its share of riot police acting as enforcers of government interests. Greece has justified similar repressive police activity as “protecting the safety of citizens.”
Note that northern European riot squads were allegedly brought in to help with anti-austerity riots in Greece. Attacks by police on demonstrators fighting for their futures draws similarities with the Arab Spring. Their role invokes memories of the police and military forces of North African nations being used as extensions of government, rather than to provide and ensure civilians’ safety.
The role of security forces to protect and serve society has been blurred by governments who employ them to discourage anti-government demonstrations. It is disturbing to see the misuse of security forces by EU nations at the expense of the common citizen.
Although much of the hardship that is created by the economic crisis may be improved, what is the result for democracy? The heaviest price may be paid in the form of lost credibility and sovereignty in the Southern EU.
As we enter 2012, a critical eye must be kept on the development of the power structure between the north and the south, the undemocratic behaviour of government in both Greece and Italy, and whether the EU citizen—especially the youth—will be able to emerge successfully from the struggle for a better future.