The Greek parliament passed a second set of reforms on Thursday in order to help secure its new 86 billion euros (Dh347 billion) bailout deal agreed, in principle, with its creditors earlier this month. This follows the government’s repayment last Monday of its outstanding overdue debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from last month and its latest tranche of payments to the European Central Bank (ECB).
Despite the new agreement with its creditors, Greece remains in economic intensive care and there are grave concerns about whether sustainable economic growth can be resumed in the absence of a significant debt write-off (Greece’s debt is more than 175 per cent of its gross domestic product). However, critical as the financial situation is, European Union (EU) Council of Ministers President Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister, warned last Friday that he was “really afraid of the ideological or political contagion, not financial contagion, of the Greek crisis” across Europe.
He highlighted that the unfolding tragedy has catalysed radical political groups on both the right and left of the political spectrum ... It was always the same game before the biggest tragedies in European history, this tactical alliance between radicals from all sides”. He went on to assert that “the atmosphere was a little similar to the time after 1968 in Europe ... I can feel, maybe not a revolutionary mood, but something like widespread impatience ... When impatience becomes not an individual but a social experience of feeling, this is the introduction for revolutions”.
Tusk’s candid comments come in a context of an exceptional period of political and economic fragility and uncertainty across much of the world in recent years. This has been driven, in significant part, by the impact of the post-2008 international financial crisis.
In Europe alone, millions have taken to the streets and administrations in more than half of the 27 EU states fell or were voted out of office from Spring 2010 to 2012 alone 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.
However, political instability has not been restricted to Europe. Even more eye-catching have been the political revolutions, popular uprisings and protests in emerging markets.
This spans last year’s change of power in Ukraine and the demonstrations in Brazil — the largest in the country for two decades. And, of course, the remarkable developments since 2010 in the Middle East and North Africa, often called the Arab Spring, including the civil war in Syria; revolutionary changes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya; transfer of power in Yemen; plus demonstrations in Turkey, Iran, Algeria, Morocco and several other countries.
This disparate range of political disruption, from Rio to Athens to Cairo, has reportedly been described as “a revolutionary wave, like 1848” by Sir Nigel Inkster, former director of operations for the UK Secret Intelligence Service. Others, like Tusk, have compared the situation to 1914, 1968 and/or 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 being the only driver. Thus, in Europe, the role of economic downturn and austerity has been central to unrest in numerous countries, including Greece.
In addition, however, unrest has tapped into pre-existing disquiet with established political parties and systems. This has helped fuel the rise of new, radical parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.
In contrast to Europe, political instability in the Middle East has often stemmed from deep-seated political and socio-economic discontent that pre-dates the financial crisis. That said, post-2008 factors — including liquidity crunches, increased food prices and unemployment spikes — have exacerbated these longer-standing grievances.
Going forward, a key question is whether political instability will now tail off, especially if economic recovery takes firmer hold 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 debate about 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. Remarkably, around five-and-a-half million people in the EU aged 15-24 are unable to find work (around 20 per cent) 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 peaked at higher than 50 per cent.
Similarly, youth unemployment in numerous Middle Eastern and North African countries is above 50 per cent. In the Middle East, the problem is acute because it has the world’s biggest youth bulge comprising increasingly educated people. Taken as a whole, it is premature to claim, as some have done, that we have entered a new era of global revolution that may be here to stay. Indeed, overall political instability may decline if the world economy enters a sustained phase of stronger recovery in the coming years.
However, there remains significant prospect of 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 higher youth unemployment, but also longer-standing political and socio-economic discontent, which social media is 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, and a former UK special adviser