Political and business leaders gather in Athens for the first European Union-Arab Summit tomorrow and the day after. The agenda will be focused very much around opportunities for mutual stability and sustainable development after a period of tremendous political and economic tumult in both geographies.
While most attention has focused on the so-called Arab Spring, Europe has also gone through significant political and economic instability since the 2008 financial crisis too. Millions have taken to the streets and administrations in more than half of the 28 EU states fell or were voted out of office from Spring 2010 to 2012 alone, partly because of economic downturn and/or austerity measures. Within the core Eurozone, 11 of 14 governments collapsed or lost elections during that same two years.
More eye-catching still, however, has been the remarkable wave of political activity, starting in Tunisia, which has spanned out across North Africa and the Middle East. This includes revolutionary changes of power in Egypt and Libya; transfer of power in Yemen; plus demonstrations and uprisings in countries as disparate as Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Oman.
The use of the word “Spring”, with the allusions to the 1848 Revolutions and the so-called Prague Spring of 1968, was widely used initially as a positive reference indicating potentially major movement toward self-determination and opportunity in the Arab world. However, that initial hope has been dashed in many states.
Indeed, some now use the term Arab or Military Winter as something that refers to the instability and violence in much of the region. This includes the menace of the Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) terrorist group and the ongoing civil war in Syria, which continues to help drive massive population displacement and migration.
This disparate range of international political protest and disruption, which — of course — has also been prevalent in some other areas of the globe too, has reportedly been described as “a revolutionary wave, like 1848” by Sir Nigel Inkster, former director of operations for the United Kingdom Secret Intelligence Service. Others have compared the situation to 1914, 1968 and 1989.
Whatever the validity of these historical analogies, it is clear that there are some genuinely new factors to the post-2008 period, including the role of social media and other technologies. Moreover, this so-called ‘wave’ of political instability has diverse origins with economic issues not the only driver.
Thus, unrest in the Arab world has often stemmed from deep-seated political and socio-economic discontent that pre-dates the financial crisis. Post-2008, however, factors including liquidity crunches, increased food prices, and unemployment spikes, exacerbated these longer-standing grievances.
In the EU, the role of economic downturn and austerity has been central to unrest in numerous countries, especially those most impacted by the Eurozone crisis like Greece and Spain. Even here though, unrest has tapped into pre-existing disquiet with established political parties and systems, hence the meteoric rise of new parties like the now-governing Syriza in Athens.
Going forward, a key question is whether political instability will now tail off, especially if economic growth sustains itself in much of the world in coming years. While this is possible, there are at least two sets of factors that will continue to fuel protest and uprising in some countries.
Firstly, there are drivers, unrelated to the financial crisis, that have been common to much of the political unrest, that will endure. This includes the disruptive role of social media.
There remains a debate on how instrumental social media has been in fomenting political instability. However, whether one sees it as an essential component that translated discontent into concrete action, or accentuated what was already-inevitable, indisputably it has played an enabling, mobilising role that may only grow as technology advances and proliferates.
Secondly, even if the worst of the financial crisis has now passed, its consequences endure, especially for the young. People aged 15-24 constitute less than 20 per cent of the global population, but approximately double the percentage of the unemployed. This puts many at risk of long-term damage to their earnings potential and job prospects, fuelling discontent.
Youth unemployment in numerous countries in the Arab world is above 50 per cent. In the Middle East, the problem is acute because it has the world’s biggest youth bulge comprising increasing educated people. Moreover, around five-and-a-half million people in the EU aged between 15 and 24 are unable to find work (that is more than 20 per cent of the population) as career opportunity structures have been swept away for too many. This has given rise to concern, including from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, about a “lost generation”, especially in Greece and Spain where youth unemployment has been more than 50 per cent.
It is in this troubled context that the EU-Arab Summit will be held and the goal is to hold annual events going forward, given the importance of both geographies to each other from the political, security and economic perspectives. Their interdependence is, for instance, highlighted by the migration crisis in Europe, which has emanated in large part from the instability across the Middle East.
Taken overall, the summit comes at a timely moment, given the significant prospect of further political unrest. While circumstances will vary from country to country, instability will potentially be fuelled not just by the legacy of the financial crisis, such as high youth unemployment, but also by longer-standing political and socio-economic discontent that social media technologies are giving fresh impetus to.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics.