The EU and Arab nations seek common ground to head off the winds of change

Both regions have experienced dramatic shifts since 2008, and the future is still uncertain as migration and political unrest take centre stage.

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Political and business leaders gather in Athens for the first European Union-Arab Summit on Thursday and Friday. The agenda will be very much about opportunities for mutual stability and sustainable development after a period of tremendous political and economic tumult in both groups.

Although much attention has been focused on the so-called Arab Spring, Europe has also gone through significant political and economic instability since the 2008 financial crisis.

Millions have taken to the streets and administrations in more than half the 28 EU states fell or were voted out of office between 2010 and 2012 alone, partly because of economic downturns and/or austerity measures. Within the core eurozone, 11 of 14 governments collapsed or lost elections over the same two years.

But more eye-catching still has been the remarkable wave of political activity, starting in Tunisia, that has fanned out across North Africa and the Middle East. This includes revolutionary changes of power in Egypt and Libya, transfer of power in Yemen, and demonstrations and uprisings in countries as disparate as Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Oman.

The use of the word “spring”, with the allusions to the 1848 revolutions and the so-called Prague Spring of 1968, was widely used initially as a positive reference indicating potentially major movement towards self-determination and opportunity in the Arab world. But that initial hope has been dashed in many states.

Indeed, some now use the term Arab or Military Winter instead, which refers to the instability and violence in much of the region. This includes the menace of the Islamic State terrorist group and the ongoing civil war in Syria, which continues to drive massive population displacement and migration.

This disparate range of international political protest and disruption, which, of course, has also been prevalent in some other areas of the globe, has reportedly been described as “a revolutionary wave, like 1848” by Sir Nigel Inkster, the former director of operations for the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service. Others have compared the situation with 1914, 1968 and 1989.

Whatever the validity of these historical analogies, it is clear that there are some genuinely new factors to the post-2008 period, including the role of social media and other technologies. Moreover, this so-called “wave” of political instability has diverse origins, and economic issues are not the only driver.

Thus, unrest in the Arab world has often stemmed from deep-seated political and socioeconomic discontent that predates the financial crisis. But post-2008 factors including liquidity crunches, increased food prices and unemployment spikes exacerbated these longer-standing grievances.

In the EU, the role of the economic downturn and austerity measures has been central to unrest in many countries, especially those most affected by the Eurozone crisis such as Greece and Spain. Even here, though, unrest has tapped into pre-existing disquiet with established political parties and systems, hence the meteoric rise of new parties such as the now-governing Syriza in Athens.

Going forward, a key question is whether political instability will now tail off, especially if economic growth sustains itself in much of the world in coming years. Although this is possible, there are at least two sets of factors that will continue to fuel protest and uprising in some countries.

Spain protest
Demonstrators protested against the investiture of acting Prime Minister and Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy in Madrid, Spain, last week. (Paul Hanna/Reuters)

First, there are drivers, unrelated to the financial crisis, that have been common to much of the political unrest that will endure. This includes the disruptive role of social media.

There remains debate about how instrumental social media has been in fomenting political instability. But whether one sees it as an essential component that has translated discontent into concrete action or accentuated what was already inevitable, indisputably it has played an enabling, mobilising role that may only grow as technology advances and proliferates.

Second, even if the worst of the financial crisis has now passed, its consequences endure, especially for the young. People aged 15 to 24 constitute less than 20% of the global population, but approximately double that percentage of the unemployed. This puts many at risk of long-term damage to their earnings potential and job prospects, fuelling discontent.

Youth unemployment in many countries in the Arab world is more than 50%. In the Middle East, the problem is acute because it has the world’s biggest youth bulge comprised of increasingly educated people.

Moreover, about five-and-a-half million people (more than 20%) in the EU aged 15 to 24 are unable to find work because career opportunity structures have been swept away for too many. This has given rise to concern, including from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, about a “lost generation”, especially in Greece and Spain, where youth unemployment has been more than 50%.

It is in this troubled context that the Arab-European Summit will meet and the goal is to hold annual events, given the importance of both groups to each other for political, security and economic reasons. Their interdependence is, for instance, highlighted by the migration crisis in Europe, which has emanated in large part from the instability across the Middle East.

Taken overall, the summit comes at a timely moment, given the prospect of further political unrest. Although circumstances will vary from country to country, instability will potentially be fuelled not just by the legacy of the financial crisis, such as high youth unemployment, but also by longer-standing political and socioeconomic discontent, to which social media technologies are giving fresh impetus.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics

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