Yellow vest protests indicate cloud over Europe

By Dong Yifan Source:Global Times Published: 2018/12/11 17:58:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The spillover of the "yellow vest" movement to Belgium and the Netherlands since December 8 after weeks of violence in France that disrupted tourism and damaged public property indicates that Europe is clearly unhappy. Protests, which broke out in France in mid-November, started against a government decision to increase fuel price from January 1 next year.

Since the outbreak of the European debt crisis, a series of problems in the European Union (EU) concerning politics, economy, security and diplomacy has affected the living conditions of most Europeans. The impact of the debt crisis has squeezed the vigor and vitality out of companies, stoking joblessness and bringing down income. In some countries in southern Europe, well-educated young people can only have physical work to do or even live on their parents' pensions.

The per capita household disposable income in 2017 increased by only 3.37 percent and 1.95 percent in France and the Netherlands respectively compared with 2008, and in Belgium even reduced by 2.05 percent, far below the rate of inflation, indicating a decline in real incomes.

The French government imposed a fuel and carbon tax in order to fulfill its promise to curb climate change. It is actually a progressive move but failed to appeal to the public, thus becoming the last straw that turned discontent into protest.

Besides economic woes, pervasive insecurity has fed the gloom over Europeans. Extremist thought stoked by a deluge of refugees from the troubled countries of the Middle East and North Africa has shattered the peace of Europe. A peaceful and prosperous continent, Europe for decades has provided tranquil living conditions for native Europeans that have recently given way to chaos and unrest.

The sense of insecurity has seeped into the socioeconomic sphere. Many problems have emerged in Europe in the course of globalization over the past 30 years. The migration crisis, the exodus of industry, increasing economic financialization and virtualization, widening income gap and the weakening of social security have bruised the traditional social fabric.

The concerns of local people on the impact that globalization had on jobs, income, social security, etc have intensified, making them susceptible to policy changes. Hence, any new proposals of the government are likely to increase discontent and drive protests.

It is therefore easy to conclude that a planned rise in fuel prices has triggered the "yellow vest" protests in France. However, the reason for the outbreak of the protests in Belgium is not clear. Protesters called for the resignation of Prime Minister Charles Michel and the protest evolved into a full-scale disavowal of the current government.

The fundamental reason for disenchantment among Europeans lies in the belief that the establishment including the EU government is incapable of solving the issues.

Though there is no evidence that populist political parties are manipulating the "yellow vest" movement, the behavior and slogans of some protesters point to extremist ideologies. The all-pervasive dissatisfaction with traditional political parties in Europe is laying the ground for right-wing groups to gain traction.

The approaching European Parliament elections in May 2019 will be more like another opinion poll for the EU and the mainstream political parties in Europe, bringing a challenge from populist parties.

The author is a research fellow with the Institute of European Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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