IHP kicks off a new series on the global wave of uprisings since 2011, and possible health implications. In this blog post, Kristof Decoster offers a view on the current Eurozone crisis, and speculates on what might come next.    



There has been a global wave  of uprisings since 2011 – with Turkey, Brazil and Egypt (bis) as some of the latest examples. These mass protests have many things in common, other things not. As part of the new IHP series on the global wave of unrest since 2011, by some already compared to 1848 or another mythical ‘mass protest’  year, in this blog post I will try to assess the European or at least the Eurozone picture, and possible welfare and health implications.  How can the events, riots, social movements and mass protests in countries as diverse as Greece, Portugal, Spain, … be interpreted, as well as the relative lack of social unrest in other (more Northern) Eurozone countries, and what are the likely consequences for the Eurozone as a whole? Keep in mind this is the perspective from an outsider, based in a Northern European country (Belgium ), that hasn’t seen mass protests  so far. Also, obviously this sort of exercise is speculative, to some extent. Nevertheless, it is a useful and necessary effort, I think  – and I will try to avoid the science fiction.

After years of dysfunctional austerity policies and huge (and occasionally violent) protests in the so called “peripheral” Eurozone countries, and a disappointing lack of solidarity in Northern Eurozone countries, at least in the streets, it’s fair to say –  to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher – that “there is no such thing as a common European identity”. Maybe many Belgians, Germans, Fins, … feel really sorry about what’s going on in Southern European countries, including the public health predicament  Stuckler & Basu  describe in ‘The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills’, but this feeling of regret hasn’t led to massive protests in North-European streets against troika policies, or against Angela Merkel’s leadership, at least for now. Worse, from what we hear, many people think going on holidays to Portugal and Greece is a bargain these days, and they comfort themselves with the idea “enjoying the sun, beaches and booze there is good for these economies too”. And we all work so hard these days, so don’t we deserve it?


No pan-Eurozone precariat

Meanwhile, in the Southern-European countries, most of the fights and battles still have a largely national feel. No doubt some activists (and trade unions) work together across borders, but by and large, it appears struggles are mostly fought nationally, targeting their own governments who implement troika policies, reluctantly or zealously. Of course, these national movements and street protests also single out the troika (Commission, ECB & IMF), or some of the powerful faces most associated with austerity policies, like José Manuel Barroso or Angela Merkel, the most influential politician in Europe, but crucially, they  don’t manage to pull in the masses from other (non-peripheral) countries  like France, Belgium, Germany, … Not even the precariat  from these countries, a precariat whose ranks are swelling as we speak.  Have you seen the German precariat in Hamburg, Bremen or other German cities (apart from some German Indignados or the somewhat bigger crowd in front of the ECB in Frankfurt, a while ago), in their hundreds of thousands, identifying with the people in a similar situation in Greece or Portugal? I haven’t.

In Southern European countries like Greece and Portugal, where the economic situation continues to deteriorate, it can be feared that ordinary people are getting increasingly exhausted from the hardship they experience every day, and the lack of response from their politicians – even if they change government, the policies remain the same. Over time, the danger of apathy looms, and its twin brother, radicalization and protest votes at the ballot box, with an increasing number of disappointed people voting for parties that are not only skeptical about the Euro (which is understandable and even shows common sense), but sadly, often oppose the European Union altogether and are more often than not  dangerously extremist and xenophobic. Mr. Barroso and bureaucrat colleagues in Brussels might not like very much what Arnaud Montebourg, France’s industry minister, recently said about current Eurozone policies –  more in particular, that Barroso and troika partners are fuelling French extreme-right with their shortsighted policies –  but his analysis holds some truth. And that’s an understatement.

Anyway, so far there is not (yet?)  a pan-Eurozone” precariat class, which identifies itself as such and is a structured, cross-border & organized movement that politicians at national and European levels take into account. Politicians in the Eurozone are worried about 2014, and about the reaction of the precariat in their countries on their policies, of course, but not because the French or German precariat would suggest an alternative for Europe, based on their solidarity with the (fast swelling) Greek, Portuguese or Cypriot precariat. True, in a way this is a consequence of the fragmentation and individualization which characterize our societies, the 21st century isn’t the 19th century. Individuals and social groups, even if their situation is similar, do not necessarily identify with each other. Even social media don’t seem to be able to cross the borders in the Eurozone, at least not when it comes to raising class consciousness (see below) .


A pan-eurozone middle class?

A pan-Eurozone middle class also doesn’t exist, as far as I can see. Just like European youth enjoy the rock festivals and dance fests all over Europe, middle class people with some money obviously love the ‘happy travelling’, especially in summer, without needing visas, and enjoying the common currency, but that’s about it. I don’t think Belgian middle class people identify with their German, Greek or French middle class brethren. What you hear is rather: we want to be like the Germans (with their strong economy), and we definitely don’t want to be like the Greeks (for obvious reasons). So the middle class in Belgium, for example, tends to ask the politicians in charge to do whatever is necessary to avoid a Greek situation and to help realize a (supposedly more flexible) “German-style” economy, “fit to compete in a globalized economy”. If possible, without the accompanying rise in precarious jobs, but plenty of middle class members don’t consider mini-jobs as a ‘red line’ – “if the Germans do this, it can’t be totally wrong”, that’s the sentiment. Don’t ask the average Belgian middle class person for example to show his empathy and solidarity with (former) German middle class people, who have lost their jobs, and now have to resort to ‘mini-jobs’. Or don’t ask most of the German middle class to really care about the worsening (or already horrible) public health situation in Southern European countries. We watch it on tv and read about it in the papers, yes, but the main reaction of most people is one of ‘we need to avoid this scenario for ourselves’, not one of solidarity.

A European public sphere?

A European  public sphere  is slowly emerging, nevertheless – as you know, Jürgen Habermas and many others consider such a public sphere as an essential prerequisite for the democratic legitimacy of nation-states. The European Union, of course, is not a nation state, but in a league of its own, in this new era of multilevel governance. It is the most important example of a transnational/supranational institution in the world. Many people argue that transnational political systems also require a (transnational) public sphere as an important element towards democratic legitimacy. Habermas is amongst those who claim that the development of a pan-European public sphere is the only way to reduce the democratic deficit in the EU.

And yes, admittedly,  there is increasingly a “European public sphere of debate” in recent years, even if there are still not too many pan-European media and blogs (for example Arte, Euractiv, Social Europe …) and their audience often does not include many common EU citizens. The main ‘boost’ for this emerging European public sphere comes, without any question, from the worsening impact of the economic crisis and the new European economic governance mechanisms which clearly limit national policy space. National public spheres are thus being “Europeanised”, at least more than before, even if most national media still tend to cover Euronews from a national angle (see  Dave Sinardet  for a more in-depth discussion).

However, on top of the timing issue (maybe the Euro-zone public sphere will come too late), most cases made in the slowly emerging European public sphere remain defensive ones, and they often lead to more polarization, not less. Too few thinkers and suggestions exploit the current eurocrisis to think of a better future, based on social justice and progressive ideas, implemented on a European scale (like European minimum wages, Philippe Van Parijs’ Euro-Dividend suggestion, establishing a truly “social Europe”, complementing the economic governance mechanisms with social governance mechanisms…), not to mention the even more ambitious New Economics Foundation-style proposals like a 21-hour workweek and other measures to facilitate the transition towards a sustainable society and stay within planetary boundaries.

See for example the new German Eurosceptic party, Alternative for Germany, which basically says to Merkel ‘enough is enough’. They might be right, in their conservative reflex, thinking rather of what is feasible rather than about what could be possible. But you can’t deny that the party’s core idea is defensive:  ‘we don’t want to continue to put German tax payer money in a bottomless pit’.   These sorts of ideas and proposals dominate the European public sphere for the moment, and definitely the Europeanized national spheres. Social democrats and Greens are gearing up for 2014, and advocating a more social Europe, that is true, but I don’t have the feeling many voters already know. And anyway, the momentum does not seem to be on their side. Radical-left or citizen democracy proposals also mostly have national implications and appeal (like Syriza in Greece, or, to some extent, Grillo’s movement in Italy), even if they do use a European lens in their analysis, sometimes. There is no pan-European radical left of a considerable size, yet, even if these parties no doubt have contacts with each other. Correct me if I’m wrong.


Impact of social media?

How about social media and the “networked society”? Again, I don’t see much evidence of a pan-eurozone identity on social media. Yes, we all have friends on Facebook from all over Europe, and partying youth know no borders, but the social media support and backlash of the Indignados movement or the Greek protests in other (more Northern) parts of Europe was relatively limited.  In a way, you could even say that social media impact goes more in the opposite direction – in many cases it increases xenophoby (versus non-Europeans or Eastern Europeans) and polarization between North and South Europeans.

The current situation also hampers the likelihood of setting up pan-eurozone alliances, between for example the growing precariat, the decreasing middle class (at least in some Eurozone countries), labour movements, young people, … which is necessary in order to be able to talk of mass mobilization and have a real impact on decision makers. True, there have been “European days of protest”, like on 14 November 2012 (“European Day of Action and Solidarity”), but in countries relatively less affected by the eurocrisis, crowds were small.


European elections in 2014

As this is the situation now, I don’t think extreme-left or even centre-left parties will book a big victory at the next European parliament elections in 2014 – see for example the current disappointment in the Hollande government, in France, after only one year. A vote for centre-left parties, if they manage to win elections, seems to amount to ‘damage control’ these days, they are apparently not able to steer Eurozone policies in another, more visionary and progressive, direction. Most probably, many people from the North will thus continue to vote for centre-right parties (with the Germans as the obvious case in point, voting for Mrs. Merkel, and in Flanders for example for N-VA, a separatist party but one that aligns with austerity policies and dreams of a Germanized economy in Flanders). As for the – many – other people who will vote for more radical parties, right-wing (or even extreme-right) Eurosceptic and populist parties will probably see their ranks increase most, not radical left. Think of Marine Le Pen, for example, a shrewd politician who understands that European and national emperors like Barroso and Hollande have no clothes anymore and knows damn well how to exploit this. By the way, stripping Le Pen of her legal immunity was about the dumbest thing the European parliament could do, if you ask me.

The fact that, at least for the moment, the European big parties in parliament don’t put forward heavyweights to lead their lists for the European parliamentary elections in 2014 (which would then be their candidates to lead the Commission), says it all. How do you want people to vote for or against European macro-economic policies, if they have to vote for rather lackluster people like EP president Martin Schulz (my mother has never heard of him, I bet, and neither has my sister), or for people who are only mostly known at the national level, like our Guy Verhofstadt? Yes, that can change during the campaign, and we know Verhofstadt is a fierce campaigner, with a clear (albeit overoptimistic ) vision on Europe, but still, a lot would have to happen before this can become a truly European campaign, with people voting on European issues.

My guess is they will thus mostly vote about the national situation, as they have done in the past, even if this national situation is obviously influenced by what happens in Europe. There will be no clear vote on Barroso, Van Rompuy, Ecofin ministers, and Merkel, apart from in their own countries, if they at least have to face their voters (like the Germans who have to judge Frau Merkel later this year; they will mostly look at what she has done in Germany and for Germans, not how her policies have affected Greeks, etc.). If people do in fact think of some of these European statesmen & women, at the ballot box, and it thus influences their vote, I bet they will mostly show their disgust, by voting for the parties you can imagine. No more than a minority will thus vote for a positive, pan-Eurozone project, based on social justice. Which is a pity, but it is what it is. As a majority of voters will vote for centre-right and populist and xenophobic right wing parties, the chances for a more social Europe after 2014 are virtually nil. Wolfgang  Schäuble’s recent interviews, for example, don’t exactly show a change of heart. And these hardliner austerians will thus be joined by more xenophobic and EU-sceptic politicians after 2014.


Collapse of the Euro and impact on welfare states?

Which begs the question: if there is no such thing as a common Eurozone-identity, and an European public sphere is only slowly developing (and 2014 will probably not really change this), why do we still need a common currency, the euro, in the first place, as it has been wreaking havoc in so many countries? Sooner or later, a critical mass of people in one of the Eurozone countries will come to this conclusion, and so one of the dominoes will fall, maybe already after the German elections this fall. It is for a reason that many analysts think austerity policies are no longer politically and socially sustainable in some of the peripheral countries, and that even European bureaucrats want to give more time to countries in trouble, even if Mario Draghi’s statements and recent ECB policies have stabilized the markets to some extent.

If Greeks, Cypriots or Portuguese reckon, enough is enough, it will be interesting to see whether there will be “contagion” to the rest of the Eurozone. My bet is: yes, there will be, even if European elites say a lot has been done since 2011 to limit this risk. If the euro implodes, all Euro-zone countries, including the ones in the North, will scramble and try to save for themselves what they can. This will include their welfare states, for the countries that still have them. No doubt you’ll hear then, ad nauseam: given the financial meltdown, and the pressures from globalization, not to mention demographic & technological changes, we can no longer afford our welfare state.  Voices like Saltman & Cahn (see their recent BMJ essay) will only become more forceful and more blunt, after this financial Euro-armageddon.

Now, in Northern European countries, you still hear, mostly: we need to restructure our health and social security systems so that they can survive in a globalized era. Then, no doubt,  more and more voices will say:  TINA, there is no alternative apart from downsizing the public sector and privatizing. Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists will be overjoyed to hear the message that, given the financial predicament,  ‘countries need to shift responsibility for substantial parts of health activity away from the public sector’, and will be quick to seize the nicest and most profitable chunks.  The European Union might survive the collapse of the Eurozone –  or not – but instead of a common “social Europe”, we will most probably end up with nationally ‘restructured’ social and health systems, with the public sector targeting the poorest, and everybody else increasingly having to take care of their own families. So much for a universal welfare state.

The current global Universal Health Coverage movement (not to mention the ‘Health in all Policies’ crowd), would be wise to start considering such a scenario, if you ask me.  The UHC “mantra”  would no doubt suffer, if  the old Eurozone welfare states collapse, one after another. Unfortunately, for the moment, that doesn’t sound like science fiction to me.

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