By Arab News
By Luke Coffey*
Weeks of protest in the capital city of a major country. Cars set on fire, buildings damaged, security forces using tear gas, and armored police vehicles deployed on the streets.
This is the situation in Paris. Had this been in a country in the Middle East in 2011, the West would already have been calling for a peaceful transition of power to take place.
For weeks protesters sporting bright yellow safety vests — required by law to be kept in every French car — have targeted the center of the French capital, striking at the heart of the country’s political elite.
The protests, which began in rural areas in France, are the most violent central Paris has seen since 1968, and the worst in the country since 2005.
While fuel taxes sparked the initial outcry, the demonstrations quickly morphed into general anti-government protests. This is probably why concession after concession by the French government has failed to appease the protesters.
Heading into the holiday season in Europe, there is no sign that the protests will stop any time soon. In fact, they seem to be spreading to other countries across Europe — and even globally. Demonstrations have spread to Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands, the UK and Ireland. They have also taken place in Canada, Tunisia and Iraq. In Egypt, sale of yellow vests has been restricted by the government.
The underlying theme connecting most of the protests throughout Europe is the growing dissatisfaction with the “European project” and the economic and political conditions the project has produced for the average person. With each European treaty over the years, power has been centralized in Brussels, leaving those most affected by laws coming from the EU feeling more distant than ever from the decision-making process.
The rush for deeper political and economic integration — no matter what the social cost — planted the seed for much of the political disenchantment seen today. Whether it was inviting countries into the euro zone that did not fully qualify (Greece) or inviting countries into the EU who were not ready to join (Bulgaria), many of the political and economic decisions taken by Brussels have made the social situation worse in many nations.
It is ironic that an organization such as the EU, which was created to encourage and promote stability and prosperity across Europe, has in recent times become one of the greatest causes of instability and economic decline on the continent.
Italy’s economy today is smaller than it was in 2008. At the height of the euro zone crisis, Greece and Spain had youth unemployment levels at 50 percent. When the economic situation is so dire, there will be social consequences. This is what we are seeing today.
The political consequence of the economic crisis was the rise of political parties on the far right and left. The growing popularity of extreme parties has done two things. First, it has squeezed the moderate political middle to the point where it feels it has no voice or is so desperate to be heard that it starts flirting with extreme movements. This leads to the further polarization of the political system.
Second, it has allowed countries such as Russia to take advantage of the situation, with Moscow advancing its geopolitical goal of dividing Western societies and weakening government institutions. Russia is often blamed for the rise of extreme political movements in Europe. While there is evidence to show that Moscow does, in fact, fund and support some of these movements, it is more truthful to say that Russia does a better job taking advantage of these movements after they are established.
One thing that seems clear, however, is that the different yellow vest protest movements popping up across Europe appear to have no single message other than an anti-establishment one.
While protests in France began over green taxes on the price of fuel, yellow vests protesters in Ireland are a motley crew of socialist republicans demonstrating alongside those campaigning against the use of fluoride in the public water supply. In the UK, parts of the pro-Brexit movement have adopted the yellow vest and have little in common with their Irish counterparts. In Sweden, protesters are angry about the country signing on to the Global Compact for Refugees, while in Belgium the main gripe is about taxes.
Until policies are pursued that address many of the economic and political problems created by an aloof European elite, social disenchantment among Europe’s populations will remain. If the legitimate grievances of the political middle are not taken seriously then expect the rise of extreme political parties, both on the left and the right, to continue.
It remains to be seen if Europe’s leaders are willing to confront this issue head-on, or if they will simply learn to live with constant protests and social disenchantment.
How long the yellow vest movement will last is anyone’s guess, but the underlying causes of the recent protests are unlikely to go away any time soon.
• Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey