Towards an autumn of discontent

Many Europeans who have no desire to foot the bill for the banking crisis are taking to the streets to demonstrate. But we will have to wait until the end of the summer to see if growing discontent will have a real impact on governments in EU member states.

Published on 2 July 2010 at 12:53

At first glance, the Greek, French and Italian strikers do not have much in common. The different protests across Europe appear to be motivated by a range of issues: dwindling buying power, the end of retirement at age 60, worries about job security etc. But in spite of this apparent diversity, the demonstrators in different EU countries are all in agreement on one major point: they believe they are being forced to foot the bill for the banking crisis.

Europe’s member states are falling over each other in their attempt to introduce austerity packages that include pay freezes, retirement age increases, cutbacks on welfare benefits and flexible procedures to facilitate lay-offs. All of these measures have prompted strikes, which in most cases have yet to yield any real results. “It is a little early for hard-line action,” explains Ton Wilthagen, a labour relations specialist at Tilburg University. With the exception of Greece and Spain, it is not clear how spending cuts will affect workers. “It would not be very smart to strike ahead of time.”

Strikers want to avoid the return of the right

“At the same time, in countries like Spain, Portugal and Greece, the threat of national bankruptcy has played an important role. In particular, it has discouraged workers from taking action against governmental measures,” explains Anton Hemerijck, professor of institutional policy analysis at VU University Amsterdam. This is especially the case in countries with left-wing governments like Greece and Spain. “They don’t want to run the risk of facilitating the return of right-wing wing parties in future elections.”

Might they change their minds? “In a movement of panic, Northern Europe could adopt a stringent austerity policies that would snuff out any prospects for growth. The countries of southern Europe are depending on their northern European neighbours to provide the impetus for their economic recovery. If this does not happen, we may well be in a period of calm before the storm."

Influence of Brussels is evident

This opinion is not shared by Catelene Passchier, a Dutch member of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). In her view, ordinary Europeans will not accept the measures. “They feel they are being forced to pay for the banks.” If governments continue to ignore this fact, she is convinced “the autumn will be marked by social unrest.”

Romke van der Veen, a professor of sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam, believes that the influence of Brussels is evident in the moderate line adopted by Southern European unions. “Over the last ten years, the European Union has been pushing for policies that take into account social partners. In times gone by, the watchword in Southern Europe was: strike first and then negotiate.” However, southern countries will have to make more progress if they are to establish a consensus system like the one in operation in the Netherlands. And the violence at recent demonstrations in Greece is proof that this is not likely to occur any time soon.

Spanish workers unaffected by decisions in Athens

According to Passchier, “Europe’s trade unions should increase their efforts to develop a united front,” which would exert pressure for less stringent conditions on money loaned to Greece. “The cutbacks are having a serious impact on the social fabric and the long-term possibility of economic recovery. Let’s not forget that this country has not always been a democracy, and the survival of Greek democracy is in everyone’s interest.”

But how can a European social movement be constructed? Spanish workers react to austerity measures implemented by Madrid, but they are largely indifferent to decisions taken in Athens. “At the end of the day, the interests of their members remain the priority for most trade unions,” explains labour conflict researcher Sjaak van der Velden.

Social unrest on a grand scale?

The unions have announced a European action day on 29 September, but what this will entail is as yet unclear. “The summer is not a good time for strikes,” says Van der Velden, “and that means that the current calm may well be temporary.” Anton Hemerijck remarks that the unions could theoretically paralyse Europe. But for the moment this scenario remains unlikely.

In any case, “we will not see social unrest on the scale of the British miners clash with the Thatcher government in the 1980s. At the time, the trade-unionism was still a working class movement.” However, Hemerijck has some words of warning for Europe’s politicians. “If the public and private sector unions band together, we may see social unrest on a grand scale, to the point where government’s in some southern eurozone countries may not survive.”

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