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How global protests gained momentum in Europe

 Fiftyfifty - Germany 17 October 2019

Soon after 'Occupy Wall Street' began on Sep. 17, it spread across 200 locations in the U.S. In the last few days, an estimated 1000 cities worldwide joined the demonstration. But Europe was a breeding ground for protests for a long time- not least because of of its troubled currency. (1912 Words) - By Olaf Cless and Ana Paz

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fiftyfifty_Wem gehört Europa 1

An estimated 130,000 protesters took part in the demonstrations in Madrid on May 15th.Photo courtesy of fiftyfifty

fiftyfifty_Wem gehört Europa 2

An estimated 130,000 protesters took part in the demonstrations in Madrid on May 15th.Photo courtesy of fiftyfifty


Three years after the global financial crisis, lasting lessons have yet to be taken from the disaster. The introduction of financial transaction and asset tax has been delayed so long that even the super rich are now asking for it themselves. With the casino of financial speculation back in full swing across Europe, it is time to stand up against the dictatorship of the finance industry.

It is "a cancerous tumour that is always growing," stated former London banker Paul Wooley. Europe's governments, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund prefer to take the option of low resistance by charging the cleanup costs to the public and making cuts in social welfare, which further enhances the gap between rich and poor.

Increasingly, citizens of Europe  are moving against this, embracing what the French ex-resistance fighter and diplomat Stephane Hessel called for in his famous pamphlet: "time for outrage!" and "time to engage!"

From Lisbon to Athens, from Paris to Rome it have merely been young people who have been showing their anger over destroyed futures and neo liberal narrow mindedness. They have been taking the streets several times, before joining the global protests in the past few days.

Here's some background to some of the countries where demostrations took place.

Spain: "No accommodation, no work, no pension, no anger"

The prospects for Spain's youth are catastrophic. After a long period of calm the anger over these prospects is coming powerfully into the open and spreading across the country.

In no other European country has the financial and economic crisis affected the young so badly as in Spain. Since 2008 unemployment amongst young people has doubled, currently at 46%, an EU record. Nearly one in two people under 25 in Spain are without a job and those who do have one, cannot necessary live off it. Hundreds of thousands of flats have been forcibly emptied and many young people end up on the streets.

Under pressure from EU, the IMF and Merkel&Co, the government under Prime Minister Zapatero has imposed a savings programme which consumes everything from unemployment support to pensions, from healthcare, through education to job protection. At the same time property tax is being abolished, millions are being thrown at the banks. Emilio Botin, head of Santander bank, which in the last 4 years collected a net profit of 35 million Euros, celebrated himself as the "clear winner of the most recent financial crisis" and praised the government of Spain to the skies.

Protests against the unequal distribution of wealth have been a long time coming; the country seemed to be sinking under apathy. But everything changed in the spring. Encouraged by the uprising of Arabic youths, young Spaniards mostly from academic backgrounds took the initiate to start the movement "real democracy now!" (Democracia Real Ya). They summarised their situation and anger through slogans such as "No accommodation, no work, no pension, no anger" and "This isn't a crisis, this is the system" and called for demonstrations to take place on the 15th May, when approximately 130,000 people in attended.

This, however, was just the beginning. A brutal police response shortly afterwards increased the wave of protests and led to a memorable three month long occupation of the central square in Madrid, the Puerta del Sol. The young "outraged", they also name themselves after Hessel's pamphlet, held notably peaceful gatherings where they provided information about their aims (while at the same time practicing a form of sign language where the participants silently signal if they agree with the speakers, disagree or have no interest in the topic). The winner of the Nobel Prize for economics, Joseph Stiglitz, spoke here and declared that the outraged were not nearly so angry as he would be in their place. Many campaigns were started here, including building walls of people against forcible removal and against the racism against foreigners of the police.

The Madrid example spread into other cities in the country and in July seven columns marched on foot for weeks towards the capital from all over the country in the "star march of the outraged" and in the last few kilometers thousands more joined them to march to the Puerta Del Sol. A particular attribute of the Spanish protests is their decisive distance from politicians from both sides of the political spectrum. The mistrust that unites them runs deep. "No nos representan"  is one of their key slogans: "they don't represent us."

Youth unemployment in Europe:

Spain: 45.7%

Greece: 38.5%

Italy: 27.8%

Ireland: 26.9%

Portugal: 26.8%

UK: 19.6%

Portugal: And the crisis greets us daily

In May the Portuguese government signed off the savings programme, known as Troika. It is the poorest people  in Portuguese society who are suffering most from the resulting cuts.

Sandra Fonseca* from Faro belongs to the group of people who have more than anyone else felt the effects of the crisis. After she had to close her cafe because of lack of revenue, the single mother moved back to her parents with her two sons, where her brother also lives. The six member family live in a small two bedroom flat and Sandra kept her head above water by working as a part time cleaner. She now also has a temporary contract with a tourism company and earns 650 Euros in total per month. "Not bad in these times"  she says. Recently she moved back in with her partner, Luciano, who after an accident receives benefits of 200 Euros per month. "The biggest problem here is unemployment"  states Sandra, "even now when the holiday season is beginning it is difficult to find a full time job."

In comparison to Sandra and Luciano, Jose and Clara Lourenco have it relatively easy. They both work as teachers at a secondary school in Coimbra and their two daughters are both completing internships abroad. The Lourencos don't find it easy to talk about their financial difficulties. For them it is: "an insult to millions of Portuguese, who live in much more difficult conditions than we do."

But even they feel the effects of the crisis. Included in the cuts was a pay cut of up to 10% for some who worked in the public sector and a pay freeze for all public servants until 2014. Jose and Clara are therefore trying to find ways to budget, by spending less on "non essential" items. They buy fewer books, don't go to the cinema or theatre and avoid restaurants. Life has changed.

The crisis in Portugal is ever-present. Every day there are new reports about the effects of the EU cuts. The price of public transport has risen by up to 25%, the price of gas and electricity is also expected to increase by a similar amount. The turnover of independent businesses reached a record minimum in the first half of 2011. In comparison the number of insolvency processes rose by 7% on the previous year. The Portuguese government expects an increase in the number of unemployed from an official 12.1% in the current year to 13.2% in the next year.

Jose Lourenco describes the current savings programme as "immoral", as they, "affect those people who find it difficult to get by anyway. "I notice this in my mother's situation, who receives 300 Euros per month and whose pension is being frozen, but the cost of medicine is not being reduced."  In real terms this equates to an inflationary increase that many struggle to meet.

Portugese Pressure Points:

  • The population discovered from the press that their water supply is to be privatised

  • The German energy company Eon, plans to enter the Portuguese market by buying out assets previously held by the state

  • Publicly owned television is to be reduced to one channel

  • The economic output of the country, already the poorest in Europe, is expected to shrink by at least 2%.

The United Kingdom: Cemented Inequality

The riots in London and elsewhere were an angry cry from the "overflow" from the Ghetto, their looting a continuation of the ruling principal "take as much as you can."

In August this year violent unrest, combined with looting and fire-raising, shook the inner city of London and other highly populated areas of the United Kingdom. In both their blind aimlessness and their social background, the participants in these riots differ from the youth movements in countries such as France, Portugal or Italy. Despite this the London Riots, as they came to be known, have their origins in the same  social problems as the rest of Europe . The breakout of violence was by no way a surprise - particularly as in the previous winter there were fierce student protests (against the increase in student fees), even the trade unions have mobilised against David Cameron's hard nosed crisis policies. The British Prime Minister defends the cuts as essential.

"In no other European country is inequality so cemented as in the United Kingdom" contests Wolfgang Kodyl in the South German News (Süddeutschen Zeitung). "Elsewhere home owners have lost equity in their property but the prices for penthouse apartments in Kensington or Knightsbridge continues to increase. The diamond trader in Hatton Garden, the haberdasher in Jermyn Street and the limousine seller in Park Lane aren't complaining about a disappearing market. In the meantime the Chancellor, George Osborne, cuts social aid with one hand and rewards the Rich with the other in a manner that would make the financial director of a Swiss canton jealous."

At the same time the process of 'ghettoisation' of the poor has increased in pace. Life expectancy and child death rates are in places similar to third world levels. Anyone who lives in publicly owned housing has little chance of leaving. Background and address leave their mark, regardless of if they have been to school or even university qualifications (for example in Tottenham, where the riots started, around 30% have such qualifications). Great Britain's elite protect themselves and their offspring successfully against social climbers: more than half of the entrants last year to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge came from the top five schools, the rest from the remaining 2000.

"Like the old dictators, the new capitalism exaggerates the fabrication of 'overflow'people, who have no future but lots of energy" wrote German culture critic Georg Seeßlen in the face of the most recent unrest in British cities. "The media paid attention to the looting of electronic stores and fashion houses and comments were made that the looting was the extension of accelerated consumerism and "coolness" by other means.  Among the rioters there were 'rich' as well as 'poor'. Take as much as you can as long as you don't get punished for it" runs the unwritten rule in England, the same rule that bankers and politicians involved in the expenses scandal have already taken advantage of."

* The Fonsecas and the Lourencos are two of five families, whose every day lives have been  regularly reported in the daily newspaper "Publico" in the features section under the title "one year in the crisis."

Translated from German into English by Sarah Morrison

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