Watching The South Explode


"It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."

Charles Dickens’ description of the French Revolution has never seemed so current. Europe today is a tale of opposites; of northern Europe, which has remained largely prosperous, untouched by Southern Europe’s debt and unemployment crisis.

This week, the economic crisis — that has grown continually since 2008 — became a political and social crisis. As northern Europeans have looked on, Greece and Spain have seen the largest anti-government, anti-systemic protests in decades.

And with Southern Europe’s sovereign debt crisis growing, Portugal and possibly Italy appear headed for similar protests. All of this is set to test the European Union’s ability to maintain its currency, the Euro, and its project of continental integration.

The week opened with Spanish voters’ unprecedented rejection of the governing Socialist Workers’ Party, which in turn triggered a party scramble to try to appear unified ahead of coming elections. Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero had announced in April he wouldn’t be running for a third term, and dismal results in last Sunday’s regional and local elections — when the party failed to win a single region in its own right — saw calls for him to go sooner.

Zapatero had announced that primaries to find his replacement would be held in the lead-up to the election. Yet last week, after rival Charme Chárcon announced she wouldn’t be running, internal party manoevring left the primaries looking less like a democractic contest, and more like a coronation of Zapatero’s deputy, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba.

The account in Madrid daily El País of the "48 hours that shook the Socialists" reveals that the party’s "regional barons" were crucial in forcing Chárcon out against Zapatero’s wishes. The report claims that factional heavies in the party weren’t happy that Zapatero appeared to be favouring the Defence Minister against what they described as the "natural candidate," deputy Rubalcaba.

The internal leadership scrambles came as Zapatero continued to lose authority within his own party, admitting that last Sunday’s defeat was his fault, says the monarchist daily ABC. Claiming that cuts to public spending were "what we had to do," Zapatero argued in his post-election analysis that the Socialists had lost on "conviction".

However, other European countries which have tried cuts to public services as a solution to the sovereign debt market problem are looking in even worse shape than Spain, with its 45 per cent youth unemployment rate. In Greece, panicking bank account holders have been taking their money out of the Greek banking system in large quantities, sometimes leaving the country with backpacks stuffed with notes, says Austrian daily Der Standard.

The Vienna daily reports that Greek Finance Minister Giorgos Papakonstantinou wants more international help from the EU and the IMF if Greece is to continue to pay its debts. Yet there’s doubt that if more loans would help anyway, says Mexico’s El Diario de Yuchatan, which calls Greece a "time bomb." "Everything indicates that the failure of the country is a matter of days away," says the paper.

This scenario is described by Argentina’s La Nación as a potential "catastrophe" that could unleash the "spectre of a global crisis" worse than the 2008 failure of Lehmann Brothers — which was what began the first round of panic on the global financial markets.

Meanwhile, Greeks are experiencing the effects of the financial crisis and government service cuts firsthand, says French Catholic paper La Croix. The paper profiles the effects of tax hikes, and a rising cost of living on small business people and workers. Particularly striking is the story of Alexia, a 39-year-old maid, who tells La Croix that many of her acquaintances have taken to foraging through the rubbish for scraps of metal and tissue (in order to sell them on to recycling firms), adding that "many Greek families are coming to frequent soup kitchens organised by their parish".

And while anti-government demonstrations in Greece are nothing new, this weekend’s demonstrations against the government’s austerity package were particularly large — and supported the Spanish demonstrations calling for "real democracy," that have been happening over the past week, reports Dutch daily Volkskrant.

20,000 people have assembled on the main square of Athens, Syntagma, and are planning to set up camp at the site, continues the paper, quoting a 34-year-old teacher who asks, "why should we have to pay for the mistakes of politicians?"

Meanwhile around 1000 French students have also occupied a section of the historic Place de la Bastille says Le Monde. The afternoon daily says the students were responding to the May 15 Indignados’ movement, who have maintained occupations of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and Barcelona’s Plaza de Catalunya since mid-May.

And those occupations in Spain are set to continue, according to Spanish daily Público, following a vote by the assembly on the Puerta del Sol late on Sunday. Público reports the assemblies were particularly concerned by an attempt to dislodge the camp in Barcelona on Friday, during which 120 people were injured. Videos taken on the plaza and uploaded by the paper show Spanish police hitting seated and unarmed protestors, bloodying at least one man. Responding to the results of local assemblies held in suburbs around Madrid earlier yesterday — to which 25,000 people turned up, according to organisers — the assembly declared that the movement against unemployment and the two major parties "will continue".


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