By Wesley Uhl, Transatlantic Community Analyst
The calls for change from the alienated youth of Southern Europe are sincere, garnering support from across each country. The citizens of Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain are fed up for good reason: mistakes were made and it’s difficult to see a way out of this debt crisis. Even if the alternative is default, it’s not easy for these populations to accept necessary changes in a time of high unemployment when those changes threaten jobs and traditional benefits. The protesters’ voices are strong, but run up against many leaders who want to finally pass austerity cuts in exchange for large bailout funds. Though some politicians, particularly in Greece, are hesitant to endorse these unpopular measures, the protesters have yet to sway their leaders toward an alternative route out of the current debt crisis.
While it is not to say that the demands of those protesting are not legitimate, few see tangible changes from these protests without a more concrete view forward. To be sure, this is not a movement of simple rhetoric with an easy solution. Both personal mistakes and deep structural flaws have led to this point, and the current discussion regarding inequality and financial greed may mark a step in the right direction. But a movement that finds strength in its ability to unite wide groups of frustrated citizens also finds weakness in its lack of a pragmatic plan which decision-makers will accept. Whether they demand reform in the financial sector, greater transparency, or growth measures that do not include austerity, the protesters have yet to project a view forward that can sway either a country’s voting citizens or the leaders that represent them.
Though many of the protesters have specific issues with their domestic politics, there is a wave of euroscepticism that extends across this movement. Quite a few feel that the EU’s top-down approach is inherently undemocratic, with too much distance between the citizens and the decision-makers. This speaks to one of the classic criticisms of the European Union: too many decisions made by unelected officials with too little institutional transparency have created a democratic deficit. The debt crisis has infuriated many who feel that the EU is far from democratic and far from the interests of the voters. If the way out of the debt crisis is going to substantially affect the common citizen, they want a greater say in the decision-making process.
But the solution to the current euro-crisis appears to require further separation between the voting citizen and the decision-makers by essentially asking Member States to give up more of their sovereignty. In order for legislation to keep up with the pace of the market, the current system where decisions are approved by the Eurozone’s 17 national parliaments must be updated. This presents a situation where the market requires further integration while the political atmosphere of the EU wants to slow down or even begin reversing this process.
In Greece, the anti-EU rhetoric is probably the loudest of the Southern states, and has created a large clash of opinions. Some view the EU’s solution to the crisis as undemocratic, and feel that their country’s sovereignty has been superseded by the EU. They feel their desires as a country are subservient to the wishes of the EU, or to the more affluent (and therefore influential) Member States like Germany. Others, however, see this as the necessary response to the threat of Greece’s enormous debt crippling the economies of the entire Eurozone. Recently ousted Prime Minister Papandreou stated that the latest bailouts do not threaten Greece’s decision-making abilities. Current PM Lucas Papademos, a banker who was appointed to his position, sees his first priority as enforcing the austerity measures in exchange for the bailout package passed in October.
If continued, this movement can hope to send a message to top-level politicians and European leaders that certain changes are needed, that the system needs more accountability and transparency. Leaders of both governments and institutions need to be held responsible for their actions, and many sectors need to be reformed and strengthened in order to prevent another disaster. What may happen is this popular movement will underscore what many politicians are saying, that the financial system needs to be solidified and individual states need to take care of their own issues and debt problems in the future. It will then be Europe’s job to make sure that individual countries are responsible for themselves, rather than to continue bailing out those who do not make the grade. In this instance, the politicians will look to these protests as public support for their political ideas.
In the end, this will surely fall far short of what many protesters demand, but nobody expects the banking system to be rebuilt or for Europe to soon realize it needs a ground-up approach with a citizen-based constitution. If the large, organized movements across the South of Europe hope to maintain their momentum and accomplish more than to re-emphasize what some reform-minded leaders are already saying, they need a concrete plan. One that is made available for leaders and fellow citizens to read, understand, and support. Otherwise, the strength of Southern Europe’s protests may be fading, even as their numbers increase.