ATHENS- Is Europe on the verge of a popular uprising? The question was asked by one of Greece’s most respected newspapers as another year of painful austerity drew to a close.
If public anger does explode on the streets, wrote Kathimerini, it will not be provoked by politicians or labour unions, but come from ordinary people who “never imagined themselves doing such a thing”.
Desperation is weighing not just on Greece, but on countries across Europe facing the same paradox: despite the end of the Great Recession, people continue to struggle with the daily reality of unemployment and poverty.
Greece, Italy and Portugal are forecast to return to growth next year, while Spain has already emerged from recession and Ireland has ended its bailout programme.
But the disconnect between economic data and quality of life is fuelling populism, rightwing extremism and anti-European sentiment — and is likely to play a big part in European Parliament elections in May.
“An improvement? We see no improvement, and will not for quite some time,” said Manuel Moreno, a 34-year-old who just lost his job at a humanitarian organisation in Madrid.
“It took 15 years for things to improve after the 1990 economic crisis. This time round, the situation is much worse. We could see no recovery for 20 to 25 years,” he said.
Yet according to the figures, Spain is already doing better.
In 2012, its banks needed 41.3 billion euros ($56 billion) from the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund — the so-called “troika” — to save them after the collapse of a real-estate bubble. Last November, the government announced it would exit the rescue programme at the beginning of the year.
The Spanish economy came out of recession in the third quarter of 2013, and the government is predicting 0.7-percent growth in 2014.
Nevertheless, the jobless rate in Spain, where more than one in four are officially out of work, is not expected to fall before 2015, according to the European Commission.
It’s a similar story in Ireland, another of Europe’s ailing children in 2010, which entered an 85-billion-euro ($115-billion) bailout that year but announced last November it would exit the programme in December.
Many Irish workers are still moving abroad in search of work. Like fellow bailout recipients Greece and Portugal, the country had more emigrants than immigrants last year.
Alan Cawley, 26, moved to England from the Irish town of Sligo in April 2012 to take a job at construction firm Murphy.
“I did a degree in construction management and a master’s in environmental systems. When I finished I was quite well-qualified, but there was no work in Ireland,” he told AFP.
“I do feel sad about leaving Ireland, although at the same time I think it is good to broaden your horizons. But I do want to go back to live in Ireland one day — I miss the gaelic football and hurling.”
In Portugal, where the troika imposed massive austerity cuts, the figures no longer seem to add up. The economy is forecast to grow 0.8 percent in 2014 and official unemployment is expected to drop — but analysts say actual unemployment is far worse, as many Portuguese have given up looking for work.
Fatigue has also hit Greece and Spain.
After turning out to protest in huge numbers in 2011 and 2012, the Spanish seem to have lost the energy or the wherewithal to go on strike.
And Greece’s largest union, GSEE, cancelled a street protest on November 6 because of weak turnout.
“People feel let down by unions who only think of their own interests,” said Vangelis Floras, an electricity company pensioner.
Greece’s embattled coalition government insists that after six years of recession, the economy will register a sliver of growth in 2014.
But it’s a hollow message for the country’s 1.3 million unemployed, a rate of over 27 percent that keeps on climbing.
‘Austerity can kill’
“Greeks are adapting, better even than other people, but there are risks of explosion,” said journalist Polydefkis Papadopoulos.
“When the debt crisis exploded in 2010, nothing budged for a year. There were few layoffs, and some salaries even rose,” he said.
“It’s the same now with this supposed economic improvement. When will people feel the positive effects?”
Against this backdrop, Greece’s neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn is garnering renewed support in opinion polls, boosted by exasperation with traditional politicians despite the fact the party is under investigation for murders and other crimes.
In Italy, which is also expected to exit recession in 2014, the threat to the established order comes from populism — in particular, from comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement.
Across the continent, there is growing dissatisfaction with the European Union’s perceived impotence against immigration and unemployment.
“A great battle is in progress, between the Europe of the people and the Europe of the populists,” Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta said in November.
“I am fighting for a Europe that understands that austerity can kill, and that the policy of nothing-but-austerity will benefit the Le Pens (France’s far-right leader) and eurosceptics like Grillo,” he said.
Opinion polls have shown Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France leading among voters for next year’s European Parliament election and the party is expected to take around 16 percent of the vote in local elections in March.
Le Pen and Dutch anti-Islamic leader Geert Wilders have now launched what they call a “historic” alliance for the upcoming European elections, with other eurosceptic parties expected to join.