ATHENS (Reuters) - The ferocity of rioting by frustrated young Greeks shocked many across Europe but provides a warning to the continent’s leaders as they discuss ways to confront the global economic crisis.
Seven days of protests, which caused hundreds of millions of euros of damage across 10 Greek cities, were triggered by the police shooting of a teenager on December 6 but fed on resentment at high youth unemployment, low salaries and inadequate welfare.
They have sparked sympathy protests from Moscow to Madrid, some quickly organised over the Internet or by SMS message, as many young people feel leaders are ignoring their frustrations.
“It’s time they listened to the people. We’re shouting ‘look at the mess we’re in’” said teacher Stella Nicolakakos, 35.
Economists say EU leaders, putting the final touches to a 200 billion euro stimulus plan in Brussels, should brace for more outcry as Europeans find their jobs jeopardised after a decade of growth which created expectations of prosperity.
“Most of Europe thought they’d be immune to the crisis and they’ve woken up late to the fact that they’re not,” said Vanessa Rossi, economics researcher at Chatham House in London. “The implications for several countries are not good, both in terms of recession and social unrest.”
In Spain, where the EU’s highest unemployment rate is tipped to reach 20 percent as the crisis deepens, youths attacked a bank and a police station in Madrid and Barcelona following protests over the Greek shooting. In Rome and Copenhagen, leftist protestors pelted police and damaged property, while in Moscow youths hurled firebombs at the Greek embassy.
In France, two cars were set alight in front of the Greek consulate in Bordeaux on Thursday. “The Coming Insurrection” and “In support of the Greek fires,” said graffiti near the blaze.
“Look what is going on in Greece!” French President Nicolas Sarkozy told members of his UMP party, rejecting budget proposals which would have cushioned the wealthy from losses.
With memories fresh of weeks of suburban rioting in 2005, Sarkozy expressed concern the anti-government backlash could spread to France: “The French love it when I’m in a carriage with Carla, but at the same time they’ve guillotined a king.”
“OVERWORKED, UNDERPAID, DEBT-RIDDEN”
Many factors behind the Greek riots are unique, including the subculture of anarchists thriving in districts like Athens’ Exarchia, where the trouble began. A history of violent policing also made Greek authorities reluctant to risk a strong response.
But other aspects stem from economic problems facing the whole of the 27-nation bloc, causing concern among investors.
“What’s happening in Greece, I fear will spread to the rest of Europe as unemployment rises,” said leading Portuguese businessman Joao Talone, calling for softer economic policies.
Greece’s headline unemployment rate — which rose to 7.4 percent in September — is actually just below the euro zone average. The key factor, however, is unemployment among youths.
Unemployment for 15-24 year olds in Greece is running at 22 percent, according to the OECD: not far removed from Italy, France and Spain, also countries with a history of mass protest.
“Young Greeks, even those up to the age of 35, make up a silent majority of overworked, underpaid, debt-ridden and insecure citizens,” said Generation 700 Euros, a group defending the 56 percent of Greeks under 30 earning that amount a month.
Generation 700 has its equivalent in Spain’s “mileuristas”, Germany’s “Generation Praktikum” (Generation Intern) and France’s “Generation Precaire”.
Young people, often forced into menial jobs despite university educations, use Internet services like Twitter and SMS messaging to rapidly organise demonstrations, says George Prevelakis, geo-politics professor at Sorbonne University.
“Many of these kids in Athens, some of them just teenagers, were not anarchists, they were just imitating what they saw on TV and the Internet. This can happen anywhere,” he said.
Europe faces challenges to social values from immigration, the rise of consumerism, secularism and youth independence.
“All of Europe is facing a crisis of social integration,” said Dimitris Keridis, politics professor at Macedonia University. “European society has been rapidly fragmenting.”
Greece’s high budget deficit and debt have limited the government’s ability to soften the slowdown and spend its way out of recession. Other European states, such as Italy where debt tops 100 percent of GDP, risk falling into the same trap.
Even wealthier Greeks are feeling the pinch after years of living beyond their means on credit, like consumers in Spain and Ireland. A housing bubble has popped, causing resentment among many people as prices fall and loans dry up.
What most infuriated Greeks was that the government seemed to be making life harder just when they needed its help by toughening state pension terms and raising taxes to plug its budget gap.
In Italy, which faces its worst downturn since World War II, unions called a strike on Friday at Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s handling of the crisis.
Chatham House’s Rossi said EU governments would face trouble unless they convince voters they take their economic and social grievances seriously, and introduce policies which address them.
“Greece was a case study of what not to do,” Keridis said, criticising the government’s hands-off response to the crisis.
Additional reporting by Dina Kyriakidou and Michele Kambas in Athens, Crispian Balmer in Paris and Paul Day in Madrid, Editing by Richard Balmforth