Why Greek Tumult Signals the Coming of Europe’s Own ‘Arab Spring’

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Are the youth-led protests rocking Greece and other European countries a sign Arab Spring uprisings have jumped the Mediterranean? Kinda-sorta, say experts watching these movements. They warn that even if democratic systems in Europe can’t be compared with the brutally authoritarian  regimes under fire in the Arab world, the angry youth on both sides of the Mediterranean share a conviction that existing social structures–and the leaders responsible for them–are simply unable to deliver on their people’s aspirations. Getting ahead through playing by the system’s rules has become an increasingly remote possibility for many young Europeans, and the result is a growing risk that the explosion of anger on Greece’s streets this week will be repeated and with greater intensity, both there and elsewhere.

“This movement is very representative of the tensions all European youth is experiencing,” Dominique Reynié, a political scientist and general secretary of the Paris think tank Foundation for Political Innovation, said in an interview this week with the daily le Parisien. “(Young) Spaniards denounce a society in which they can’t get a foothold, and show total defiance for all its institutions. Their reaction breaks with traditional political models, and has no doctrine or platform. The Greeks were already protesting in the same manner. Other very vigorous protest movements will also take place in Europe. This new generation is more combative in political and democratic terms. The current crisis has set these young people to a boil.”

Of course, the differences in political realities mean Arab autocracies and European democracies can’t be fairly compared. And the economic stagnation afflicting many European still represent a level of affluence and opportunity beyond the grasp of under-developed Arab countries—one reason why many still migrate to Europe. Nor is the brutal response to protest in Syria or Libya conceivable in Greece, Spain, or the UK —where recent demonstrations have at times turned violent. Still, despite the difference in circumstances, there’s a strong shared feeling among the mobilized publics on both continents that the system fails them. And with their elected leaders incapable of changing the situation, young Europeans are figuring it’s time to change the rules of the game.

“We don’t have the dictatorships, but it is, in a European context, the Arab Spring moment of people saying they are no longer getting their part of the deal, and telling leaders failing to deliver that things are going to change,” says Denis Muzet, president of the Institut Médiascopie public research organization. “This can be in the form of demonstration—even violent protest in some cases—or in how people vote. In France, we’re hearing people not only often say they’re planning to vote against ruling conservatives, but then hold whomever wins fully accountable for their actions,and their results. This isn’t just about political alternation any more—meaning the left is going to find itself under considerable pressure on clarity and performance if it manages to win elections here next year.”

Alienation from the social contract in Europe increases the further one descends the age scale, particularly when it comes to patience with the ballot box as an instrument of change. The recent nearly two-week sit-in by protestors in Madrid wasn’t just protesting government austerity measures; young Spaniards were demanding an entirely new political and economic system. That sentiment spread to Portugal,  is loudly echoed in Greece, and periodically crops up in elsewhere in Europe.

That radical perspective among younger people on how society is organized may not dissipate once Europe’s economies begin to turn around, because a growing portions of young Europeans feel their societies no longer offer them the same prospects for prosperity that their parents had. This despair at having a career—or even an independent life as commonly understood—is not entirely new, and pre-dates the Arab uprisings. But it’s both spreading and deepening, prompting younger Europeans to follow the example of their Arab peers and taking to the streets to press for changes in a post-World War II social order that can’t accommodate their aspirations.

Like the Arab uprisings, unrest among European youths isn’t uniform in its expression or duration. Reynié says the level of despondency and lack of faith in current social systems varies greatly across Europe—higher in southern and eastern European nations, lower in northern countries that began altering their societies and economies years ago in anticipation of changes on the way. But findings in his foundation’s recent global study,  “2011, World Youths” shows that some commonalities exist across Europe. And those may well gel to create new waves of protest in Europe’s near future.

For example, the study showed that while European youths generally felt optimistic about their own individual outlook for the future (a view characteristic of young Americans), they  were decidedly more pessimistic about the future of their respective countries (an attitude popular among young Greeks).

Meanwhile, with many European youths having little hope for getting a good, well-paid, career-promising job within what’s currently a blocked economic and business set-up, a large portion of them want their country’s social models to change. In an unprecedented shift, the survey found that young people no longer want to support social programs and retirement systems for older generations viewed as having sucked all the cream away. Expect more clashes on how Europe’s shrinking economic pie is divvied up. Says Reynié in le Parisien:

The conflict between the generations is going to be very hard. The aging of the population means that older people will mechanically absorb more and more of the collective wealth. Young people will have to pay for that. Just as they’ll have to repay the debts that were taken on to finance our social models and current standard of living—a standard they aren’t benefiting from themselves. On top of that, older people continue to be assigned the responsibility of leaving little (employment) room for younger people.

Those grievances are quite different from those of the Arab Spring, of course, except in the failure of politicians to offer credible solutions.

“The politicians aren’t interested in young people, because they don’t understand them,” Reynié says in le Parisien. “But also, from an electoral point of view, young people aren’t bothered with because they don’t vote. In the last European elections, 80% of the 18 to 24 year-olds abstained”.

Be that as it may,  with 18 to 24 year-olds on the planet now numbering 1.1  billion—the largest youth population ever since global demographic records have been kept—European politicians may soon find themselves having to deal with “uninteresting” young people decide to step up efforts  to make their political differences in protests and street clashes with cops, rather that in the ballot boxes their parents favor.

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