Thursday, February 28, 2013

Discontent on both sides of the Med


Stability in Europe depends on stability along the southern rim of the Mediterranean Sea.
This was one of the key points in a message from the Portuguese president of the EU Commission, José Manuel Barroso, at the start of a conference last week entitled “Thinking out of the box: Devising new European policies to face the Arab Spring.”
Two days of speeches from the conference podium and discussions at roundtable sessions and in workshops at the University of Minho in the north of Portugal, involved academics from a variety of disciplines and countries. They explored how best to address the on-going consequences of the social and political upheavals in North Africa.
Participants focused on the complexities of such matters as security risks, border controls and fears of mass migratory movements across the Mediterranean into southern Europe.
In setting the tone, Barroso said: The process of change is just beginning and the transitions are far from complete. It will take time until we can say whether all those young men and women who came to the streets to demonstrate against authoritarian regimes will see their expectations fulfilled.”
He emphasised “that events in our neighbourhood have a special importance for the future prosperity and stability of the European Union.”
When negotiating with the EU, the governments of North Africa must take into account the views of their people. And the EU needs to develop a stronger engagement directly with civil society organisations in the Arab countries, he said.
Barroso added that the EU is offering “support to economic reforms” in the Arab Spring countries as “part of a wider strategy to promote inclusive growth, create more jobs and tackle social challenges.”
A few days later, the president’s words sounded strangely apt in a different context when representatives of the European Commission, the IMF and the European Central Bank – the so-called ‘Troika’ of lenders – arrived in Lisbon to assess the latest economic situation here.
They were greeted by an announcement from the Que se Lixe a Troika (Damn the Troika) movement of renewed mass demonstrations across the country. A cacophony of opposition politicians, trade unionists, street protesters and the Portuguese public at large is declaring that the severe austerity programme insisted upon by the ‘Troika’ is stifling and simply not working.
“The fiscal targets are unachievable. Social conditions are worsening and democracy is suffering. Worst of all, people have no reason to believe the future will be any better. The programme has failed and it has to be changed,” declared an editorial in Público, one of Portugal’s most respected daily newspapers.
More than two years after the ‘Jasmine Revolution’  at the dawn of the Arab Spring, which brought down oppressive governments, demonstrators in this country are reviving Grândola, Vila Morena, the song that became synonymous with the 1974 ‘Carnation Revolution’, which  toppled Portugal’s last dictatorship.
Not on the scale of the turmoil in Egypt, Libya or Tunisia of course, but discontent in normally placid Portugal is simmering and seems to be heading towards boiling point.
The clear message from those taking part in the latest anti-austerity protests is that the time has come for not only new economic policies, but also a new government, one that respects the views of the people. 

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