The recent spate of riots in Britain has sparked debate over whether we are on the brink of a “European Spring” in a similar vein to the “Arab Spring” uprisings. While the riots were sparked by protests over a police shooting in Tottenham, North London on August 4, the violence, reach and volatility of the rioting speaks of greater issues under the surface.
Economic instability, racial tension, social divisions and even restless boredom have been listed as possible reasons for the large scale unrest visited on London and other UK cities over the weekend of August 6. Other European countries with the same mix of internal dynamics are now concerned that UK riots may be the start of an ugly European Spring.
The Threat From Islamic Extremists vs. Domestic Unrest
Since the Twin Tower attacks of September 11, 2001, the western world has been focused on the dangers of Islamic extremism, terrorism and the threat of religious fundamentalism tearing at the fabric of society. Mainstream news outlets fanned the fires of fearfulness, with the bearded Arab replacing the Cold War-era communist as the dangerous “other.” However, while the War on Terror raged in the Middle East and South Asia, the impact of economic woes at home may have been creating a new internal crisis that the threat of “the other” can no longer distract from.
There have been protests on and off in Europe over the last couple of years as the economic situation worsens. Greece, Spain, Ireland and France have all seen wide-spread protesting and even striking in some instances, however in these cases protestors have remained more or less peaceful and had a strong message they wanted to send to governments. In contrast, the UK riots spun out of control off of a small group of protestors and quickly transformed from messaged-motivated action into anarchic chaos for chaos’ sake.
To many, the rioting seemed to come out of nowhere. However, Tottenham, the area of London that sparked the riots, is a well-known hot-spot for social unrest. There are multiple social issues that come into play in the UK riots, from joblessness to gang membership, lack of education and opportunity to even seemingly simple issues like parental discipline. One Tottenham resident claimed that a restless boredom combined with a lack of hope in youths was a defining reason why the area descended into violence so quickly.
Governments across Europe will be realizing that in their own cities, in lower-middle class neighborhoods the same set of issues or a similar mix are present, and it may take very little to strike a match in these areas as well. The way the UK riots spread so quickly and without cause will also have authorities concerned that copy-cat riots, in a similar vein to the domino effect of the Arab Spring, may be on the cards in continental Europe.
Add to this the growing Islamaphobia, which has found popular support in Europe through figureheads like Gert Wilder espousing the dangers of Muslim immigration, and you have reason for concern that Europe is on the edge of an uglier version of the Arab Spring.
Europe was shocked to the core in July when lone gunman Anders Breivik went on a 90-minute shooting spree in a youth camp, after first setting an explosive device at Norway’s government buildings. His self-confessed “atrocious” actions where in his words “necessary” to awaken Norway, and by default Europe to the dangers of multiculturalism, open immigration and what he called “Cultural Marxism.”
While it may not seem plausible that Europe will descent into flames overnight, the growing concern for authorities is that as the economic situation in Europe deteriorates, stress will be brought to bear on fault lines in society. As jobs become scarcer, immigration will become more of an issue, especially in societies where there are strong divisions already within the migrant community and the native population. The Breivik incident shows clearly that even in countries where economic issues are not at their worst, discontent is brewing within the population over issues that will become breaking points if the economy fails.
The Difference Between Arab And European Spring
European countries are also presenting with some similar scenarios as those that fueled the Arab Spring uprisings: namely a large and growing portion of the population out of work, and increasingly discontent with their governments. We saw in the UK riots that social media played a role in fanning the spread of the riots to other cities, as it also played a key role in the organization of action in Arab countries.
While there are some similarities between what is happening in the Arab world and the potential in Europe, it is apparent that a European Spring would be of a darker tone to the Arab Spring. There is the possibility for far more destructive action in Europe because there is not an overriding goal bringing the population together. In the Arab uprisings there was a distinct sense of cohesion among protestors because their goal of bringing about leadership change superseded divisions within the population. In Europe, however, there is the possibility that civil unrest will deepen divisions.
PoliTact is carefully monitoring the developments in Europe for signs that deepening economic woes could trigger widespread protests, if not riots across the continent. Ethnic tensions are a key element to watch, especially since the attacks in Norway. Increasing nationalist sentiments and organizational activity, such as planned marches by the far-right group the English Defense League (EDL) in the UK are also possible triggers for further unrest.
At its current pace, a European Spring may not eventuate, or may take years to fully blossom. However, two scenarios may cause tensions to rapidly ignite. Firstly a sharp downturn in the economy that affects Europe deeply and broadly could jumpstart a European Spring. Secondly, an attack in Europe by anyone with connections to Islamic extremism, particularly of a “home-grown” nature could also be a catalyst for igniting already-existing tensions in wide-spread European unrest.