Having been on the increase in most parts of the world for some time, economic and social inequality have now become more acute across the European Union as well, in the wake of two severe crises: the global economic and financial crisis of 2008 and the Covid-19 pandemic, both of which struck the region within the course of little more than a decade. Will rising inequality trigger a new wave of protests, social radicalisation and political instability? It is likely to do so, but unlikely to be accompanied by traumatic effects and political regime changes.
Rising inequality, in terms of income, consumption and access to essential services, caused by economic crises, has historically fuelled intense, widespread social protest, and sometimes even revolutionary processes. Examples of this include the link between famine and uprising in the pre-modern era, the financial crisis of the ‘ancien regime’ and the French revolution, the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s on the emergence of Nazism in Germany, the unrest caused by rising bread prices that triggered the ‘Arab Spring’ 10 years ago and, more recently, the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ movement in France. There is a link between inequality (and the sense of social injustice that goes with it) and collective protest, but it is not direct and it varies according to certain key variables, especially the dialectic between movements and institutions, and the response of the holders of power, which in turn depends on the nature of the political regime.
The years prior to the pandemic saw forms of protest in Europe that seem to confirm this link with rising inequality and can be classified into various categories, e.g. against the power of multinational companies and international finance (such as the ‘Indignados’ movement in Spain), against social exclusion (such as the uprising of marginalised young people in the outskirts of Paris), against the drift towards authoritarianism of sovereigntist governments (such those in power in Poland and Hungary), and identitarian or negationist national-populist protests. These protests are set to continue in the months to come (having been put on hold by the pandemic for the time being), but will remain limited, fragmented and unlikely to give rise to a broad, organised movement capable of causing a regime crisis. Let’s look at why.
If it had reached its logical conclusion, the sequence of phases that marked the 2008 global crisis in Europe (financial crisis, economic stagnation, sovereign-debt crisis, rising unemployment and underemployment and rising poverty) would have ended in systemic political crisis. Unlike in the Great Depression of the 1930s, however, it did not. In the same way, the latest crisis – this time in the form of the pandemic, which hit Europe before the region had fully recovered from its previous crisis, and did so even more suddenly and violently than in other parts of the world – will not trigger radical mass protest. For the time being, in fact, it seems to have had the opposite effect and has hence defused existing protests and put them on hold, by virtue of a combination of two seemingly opposing attitudes. The first is people’s predominant concern for their own survival (and that of their friends and family), and the second is their feeling of collective solidarity, which promotes collaboration rather than protest, and puts more emphasis on what unites us than what divides us.
In the near future, several other factors will stand in the way of radical mass protest, such as the fragmentation of movements, the difficulty of building institutions with common objectives and stable organisation, and the role of social media, which are highly effective for launching flash mobs and mobilising large numbers of people quickly, extensively and at low cost, but do not solve the dilemma of institution-building. But the biggest obstacle to radicalisation in Europe (unlike in other regions of the world) is the European Union and the ‘European social model’, which has given rise to a prompt, substantial, high-quality response to the pandemic crisis, in the form of the Next Generation EU programme. In a liberal-democratic political regime like that of the EU and its member States, government responses to crises tend to be reformist and may therefore trigger a virtuous circle of protest and reform. The welfare state, which is a cornerstone of the European political integration project, has made it possible to provide European citizens with universal health care at low prices, mitigate the social and psychological costs of the pandemic, prevent mass redundancies and limit the effects (although they remain serious) of rising inequality between and within member states. There have been delays, mistakes, shortcomings and culpable inefficiencies (albeit more on the part of national and local governments than of the European institutions), so numerous grounds for protest remain. Overall, however, the Union has emerged from the pandemic crisis stronger, because the majority of European citizens have realised that the supranational response is more effective and supportive than the sovereigntist response.