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In France, the “yellow vests” are waging relentless, occasionally violent protests that already forced the Paris government to pledge a range of measures to address grievances over taxes and declining standards of living.

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A demonstrator throws a projectile on January 5, 2019 in Paris, during an anti-government demonstration called by the yellow vest "Gilets Jaunes" movement. France's "yellow vest" protestors were back on the streets again as a government spokesman denounced those still protesting as hard-liners who wanted only to bring down the government. Image Credit: AFP

In December, rare scenes of chaos gripped the Hungarian parliament as it passed controversial judicial reforms and labour legislation that critics call as “Slave Law”.

The legislation was pushed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s party, who earlier used their numbers to rewrite the Constitution to give his party greater power.

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Anti-government demonstrators carry a banner reading "We protest against the slave bill" as they protest in front of the Parliament building at Kossuth square, donwtown Budapest Image Credit: AP

More protests gripped Budapest on Sunday, fanned by anger over the new labour law that in effect compelled employees to work hundreds of hours of overtime without full or immediate compensation.

Meanwhile, in Serbia, thousands marched through Belgrade's frozen city centre on Saturday, January 5, the fifth consecutive weekend protests against President Aleksandar Vucic and his ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), demanding media freedoms and an end to attacks against journalists and opposition figures.

On the face if it, protesters' anger stems from lofty local, anti-elitist demands — which are sometimes expressed through chaotic or valdalistic means.

But the protests manifest something far greater than localised economic or social issues. Pundits say there powerful undercurrents at work, similar to the Winter of Disconent in the UK in the 1970s.

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People take part in a protest against a proposed new labor law, billed as the "slave law", in Budapest, Hungary, Image Credit: Reuters

These protests have different characteristics — and have no common trigger.

Historically, the European Union was formed from the ashes of disparate tribes, kingdoms and principalities involved in internecine wars with each other, which culminated in World War 2. Now, it is buffeted by a new political wave.

Some experts fear economic nationalism, combined with a virulent form of populism sweeping across the continent, could weaken the Union.

The implications are chilling

Is this “winter of discontent” a sort of segue from the so-called “Arab Spring” that could change — or redefine — today's Europe?

Will the EU, which started with six members and now expanded to cover 28 countries, follow the fate of what was once the Soviet Union?

To be sure, this wave constitutes a test of the ties that bind EU nations. One thread that holds them together is the common aim of ending frequent and bloody wars between neighbours.

Yet, EU nations today are fraying over the internal political dramas playing out in different countries.

Many of the protest movements that have reared their ugly head this winter are driven by domestic economic and social imperatives — along with pushback on mass Mediterranean Sea migration and the routine clash of national interests among disparate member nations.

Trade war

There's another factor aggravating this equation. The world is in turmoil, due in part to the same wave of reckless populism in America that resulted in a Trump presidency, who triggered tough trans-Atlantic talk and led the US and EU to the brink of a trade war.

In July 2018, during US President Donald Trumps visit to the UK, he was faced by a "Carnival of Resistance," with major protests organised in London. The protests followed the "Women's March" — which brought 100,000 people to the streets of the British capital in 2017.

Across Europe, far-right populism and nationalist extremism that border on xenophobia are on the rise, capitalising on the general frustration at the failure of the incumbent governments to turn the economy around and make it more inclusive.

In many EU countries, fuel is added to this social conflagration by deep resentment towards the rising tide of immigrants, especially in Greece and Italy. The two countries assail other member nations perceived as not doing enough to share the burden.

Some experts see a trend: a potentially potent threat both from within and without that could shake the core of the European Union, which has dominated the bloc's politics since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of eastern communist states.

They fear that liberal democracy, the dominant ideology of the present world order, is on its way to self-destruction in its European craddle.

Meanwhile, both Russia and China are not helping either. Putin has stepped up his aggression in eastern Ukraine and US President Donald Trump is also waging a trade war against China — possibly expanding it to the EU, which Trumped labelled as a “foe”.

Unapologetic

The European far-right is expanding their sphere of influence. Austria's unapologetic right-wing anti-immigration policy, fueled by the Freedom Party, have leaders winning elections, despite their known ties to neo-Nazis.

The Netherlands also saw the the rise of the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam Party for Freedom, PVV, founded by Geert Wilders, the country's most hated man.

Part of the rhetoric populist political parties — such as the Dutch List Pinn Fortuyn (LPF) and Forza Italia (FI) — dish out include claims and demands concerning the renewal of democracy, backlash against the social and political elite and a bureaucratic system perceived as largely ineffective in heeding public sentiment.

What's the score in Europe this year?

Observers expect the region to face another difficult year this 2019, dominated by challenges that could easily turn into menacing crises.

Europe’s key challenges this 2019:

  • UK will withdraw from the European Union (EU) on March 29.
  • A brewing economic and financial crisis in Italy, which is expected to worsen and threaten the stability of the Eurozone.
  • Populist protests could hound France, Hungary, Serbia, diminishing its potential to take a lead role in the pursuit of EU-level reforms
  • In May, the European Parliament will holds elections, which is expected to a deliver a nationalist majority or near-majority
  • This would then determine the next members of the powerful European Commission (EC).
  • This would also sway the selection for leaders of other major regional institutions: The European Council and European Central Bank, and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Backlash

In the face of an anti-liberal, anti-globalisation backlash, and amidst a lingering economic slowdown, Germany’s ex-foreign minister Joschka Fischer fears for Europe’s very “survival” as a regional bloc.

Other political observers, however, believe otherwise. They argue that the protests, which sometimes turn ugly and deadly, manifest the continent's deeply-rooted tradition of self-renewal based on the universal values of justice and equality.

As opposing forces and interests weave their own narratives in the wider market of ideas, social frictions arise. But they see protests as a form of release valve that helps strengthen democratic institutions among the constituent countries and within the bloc.

The bigger European project, they argue, remains safe at the hands of the present generation of leaders — and all persuasions of protesters. In this view, everyone is enjoined to adhere to an unwritten social contract: dissent, when managed well and turned on its head as positive feedback, oils society's dynamism and improves everyone's lot.

It springs from the common realisation that embracing diversity is a powerful force towards unity.