News / Europe

Protests Rile Southern Europe Threatening Continent's Unity

Demonstrators holding placards march towards the building of the Spanish parliament in Madrid, June 19, 2011
Demonstrators holding placards march towards the building of the Spanish parliament in Madrid, June 19, 2011
Lauren Frayer

Social unrest is sweeping southern Europe, with protesters taking to streets in Spain and Greece, angry about high unemployment, welfare cuts and their governments' handling of the economic crisis. With demonstrations showing no sign of ending soon, Europeans are asking what the movement's lasting impact will be on the continent's social, political and economic unity.

Protesters - taking to the street

Walk down main thoroughfares in the Greek or Spanish capitals, and you're likely to see demonstrators - young people camped out on city streets, protesting high unemployment and their governments' handling of the economic crisis.

David Gomez is one of those out of work in Madrid. "In this situation, it's so difficult to find a job, because there are not many opportunities," he said. "The salaries they give to us are not very good."

Gomez says he feels like he's joined a pan-European movement. He's never been to Greece, but he calls protesters there his "brothers." He says if they unite, politicians can't easily ignore them. That's especially true here in Spain, with a general election expected by early next year. "They can't ignore us, because the movement is going on and on," he stated.

Similarities/differences in southern Europe rallies

While protest rallies in Athens or Madrid look remarkably similar, Spanish politicians are constantly pointing out the differences. Greece, along with Ireland and Portugal, is receiving European Union money to keep its economy afloat. Spain doesn't want to have to do the same.

Spain's finance minister, Elena Salgado, says that financial markets know the difference between a healthy economy and an ailing one.

Salgado says she believes the markets can "distinguish perfectly" between Greece and Spain. She says her government is implementing the reforms Spain needs, and that Europe as a whole has nothing to worry about when it comes to Spain.

But people like Gomez, who has been unemployed for two years, offers himself up as proof that Spain's economy could be the next to fall. "We're not the first country to have very big important problems, but they think we could be the next one to get in that situation. Maybe they should be worried about that," he noted.

With much of southern Europe teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, resentment has erupted between the continent's north and south.

Some Germans, for example, don't like the idea of bailing out southern economies generally seen as more corrupt, and less efficient. Some Greeks, on the other hand, resent the strict belt-tightening that comes with aid money.

Conspiracy theories, sterotypes, envy

This week, EU finance ministers postponed a decision to hand Greece another vital loan, until more austerity measures are implemented.

Decisions like that spark more anger - and even some conspiracy theories. Spanish protester Ruben Hernandez describes the stereotype he thinks northern Europe has about protesters in Spain or Greece.

"They show some news saying that we are very violent, and people without studies and that we only came here to drink and smoke. I don't think that's the truth. I have studies, and a lot of my friends have careers. We came here to protest and to try to change society," Hernandez stated.

But Hernandez also says he's envious of Germany's economy, and would take a job there in a second. "In their jobs, they earn much more than here, and they have better holidays and benefits that here in Spain we don't have. Since we came into the eurozone, all the things became expensive, but our salaries didn't grow," he said.

Vanessa Rossi, a European economics expert at London's Chatham House, says some of that animosity between north and south might be misplaced.

"It's like a sort of charity where they're biting the hand that feeds them. Somehow some of the problems that have been incurred in the eurozone have not been well explained to the public. In Greece, the explanation of what will happen if they do not fulfill conditions of this bailout. If they think that there's an easy option, to default or even to leave the euro - these are not easy options that will bring very quick, pleasant surprises for their economy," she said.

In such dire economic times, it's important to remember: Neither Spain nor Greece is the poorest country in Europe. Places like Romania have more poverty. But Rossi says social unrest sweeping southern Europe now has more to do with the continent's north-south divide, intervention from Brussels, unemployment and the way people perceive the legitimacy of their own governments.

"Populations feel disconnected from Brussels. But even more importantly, in the case of Greece, the population seems disconnected from its own body politic, and Brussels cannot resolve that. It's not a Brussels problem, it's a national problem," she added.

Rossi offers an incredible statistic. "The number of unemployed in Spain is about the same size as the total Greek labor force," she explained.

That's more than 4.5 million people. So while Greece struggles to fulfill austerity promises, Spain is carrying the burden of more than 21 percent unemployment. And northern Europe is left to figure out how to keep the continent's unity intact.

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