2019 LOOKAHEAD: New brand of social upheaval takes shape ahead of EU elections

A protester in costume attends a Yellow Vest demonstration in Paris, in front of the Opera, 15 December 2018. [Ian Langsdon/EPA/EFE]

The yellow vests in France and Belgium may be only the tip of the iceberg of a major social upheaval ahead of the European elections, with a common denominator: people protesting their worsening living standards do not want to be represented by the existing political forces.

The “usual suspect” for rocking the boat ahead of the 26 May European elections was the refugee crisis. To a large extent, the massive arrival of migrants to Europe influenced the British ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum. Though the “wisdom” of Prime Minister David Cameron to hold a referendum during the peak of an unprecedented migration crisis can be questioned.

Sweden is still in a political impasse, without a government, after the far-right made gains in the September elections on a hardline immigration platform.

Sweden faces political impasse after far-right election gains

Sweden faces a political impasse after its mainstream centre-left and centre-right blocs virtually tied in an election on Sunday (9 September), while the far-right – which neither wants to deal with – made gains on a hardline anti-immigration platform.

And in Belgium, Prime Minister Charles Michel offered his resignation after his coalition partner N-VA abandoned ship on an anti-migration ticket.

But in other EU countries, political cataclysms took place because of reasons other than migration. In Slovakia, the prime minister was replaced largely as the result of an uproar following the killing of journalist Ján Kuciak. In Spain, PM Mariano Rajoy lost power after corruption scandals.

Italy is a special case: the country has always been a laboratory for political projects and has lately be tempted to test anti-establishment governance. 5-Star’s Luigi di Maio and Lega’s Matteo Salvini formed a government based on two major goals: stopping irregular migration and boosting welfare. The latter created tensions with the European Commission, cautious of maintaining the budget discipline in the eurozone.

Other governments didn’t make welfare a priority and paid a price. Events were accelerated by a rise in fuel prices, caused by global fluctuations but also tax policies aiming to improve air quality by reducing the use of diesel. From Bulgaria and Croatia (Bulgaria is the country with the lowest wages in the EU) to France and Belgium (where the wages are well above EU average levels) people took to the streets to protest.

In Portugal, France and Belgium, the protest movement took as its banner something everyone has at hand – the yellow vests obligatory in every car. People who support the movement,  without joining the protesters, placed their yellow vest in a visible manner behind the windshield. This signalled that the ‘yellow vests’ enjoy a surprisingly high degree of support in society.

Macron makes U-turn on fuel-tax increases in face of ‘yellow vest’ protests

France’s prime minister on Tuesday (4 December) suspended planned increases to fuel taxes for at least six months in response to weeks of sometimes violent protests, the first major U-turn by President Emmanuel Macron’s administration in 18 months in office.

It’s interesting to note that in Hungary, despite the many motivations the opposition-minded people would have to stand up against the policies of Viktor Orbán, the common denominator that united them was of economic and social nature – the so-called “slave law”, allowing employers to ask staff to work up to 400 hours per year of overtime.

Hungary protests spark opposition coalition – but will it last?

Week-long protests in Budapest have forged fragmented opposition parties into a rare coalition against Viktor Orbán, drawing young Hungarians into the streets to demonstrate against what they see as his increasingly authoritarian rule.

‘A universal signal’

Polish analyst Piotr Kaczyński told EURACTIV that the signal the yellow vests protests are sending through the Union is a universal message of those “left behind”, the people who lost patience with globalisation.

He argued that the much-praised globalisation has in fact benefited few, and definitely not ordinary people – often jobless, frequently underpaid, with no job security, endangered by the changing world and influx of migrants from the Global South, challenged by the competition from the Global East.

Kaczyński said the Polish situation was no different, although some may think the country has gained from globalisation.

“Just one example: the average salary in Poland according to the local statistical office is €1,100 before tax and Eurostat says the unemployment is under 4%. Great, no? But only under an asterisk (*) can you find out that 60% of Polish workers are not counted for the average. Two years ago, this is the latest available data, the dominant salary in Poland was only €350 after tax. This is the country that elected a nationalistic government three years ago. Overall things may look good, but the devil is in the detail”, he said.

Asked if this would reflect on the European elections results, he said:

“Absolutely! The “impatient” have already shown their teeth will all kind of protest votes in recent years challenging the political systems of most of EU member states and now – of the Union itself. This is not always an anti-European voice. There are grave problems in European societies, plenty of angst and lack of patience and very few leaders addressing the real social problems.”

Aline Robert, the chief editor of EURACTIV France, commented that France is one of the best places in the EU, and in the world, when it comes to health, social benefits, lifestyle. And she added a big “but” to this description:

“But a lot of people feel the opposite. Purchasing power has been stagnating for years, though multinationals pile up benefits. Workers do not manage to have a say in their workplace: they do not vote for trade union elections, and trade unions end up without power,” Robert said.

As a result, she added, the gap between management and workers is deepening, and so are other gaps: between politicians and citizen, big cities and countryside, suburbs and city centres.

Brand new beat

According to Robert, the insurrectional mood had been fuelling a hard feeling against traditional parties for a while already: the left calls it « dégagisme » (“get out of here”), a rejection of the political class. It mainly affects parties that have been in power: socialists and the centre-right, she added.

Yellow vests do not recognise themselves in politics: half of them barely vote and the other half is split between extreme right and extreme left. This could change for European elections if a “yellow vests list” is set up, as La République En Marche [Macron’s party] wishes”, Robert explained.

According to her, a possible yellow list for the European elections would benefit Macron because it would steal votes from the far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen and the maverick leftist force France insoumise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, but not from the mainstream.

Yellow vests, however, have found it very difficult to get organised, both in formulating claims and electing representatives or leaders. There is, of course, still enough time to get it right, and for their activism to grow across borders.

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