Europe │ Dangerous times ahead?

5 May 2009

The EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, Mr Vladimír Špidla, has warned of social destabilization in Europe as the result of worsening unemployment. (See Financial TimesEurope jobs crisis poses ‘threat’ to social order’) Extremists, more likely to be on the right than on the left, will benefit politically from the economic misery. That moment may be nigh: the European elections are in June.

The likelihood of recovery in employment is slim, according to the newspaper reports I have been reading. There is no question that more jobless there are, social tensions will rise and politics turn nastier. While I am no expert in sociology or employment matters, I think casual, part-time labourers are the first to go. Cheap labour can be discarded easily, but potentially at a high social cost.

The dynamic of immigration, both within the EU and from without, and the imperfect integration of second- and third-generation immigrants, who are citizens of the country but feel alienated from it and its dominant society and culture, make for a dangerous mix. Even in prosperous times, there were tensions, and in tougher times, the divisions become worse. There is discrimination against immigrants, minorities and (in Britain at least) people with the ‘wrong’ accent. Without jobs and shunned by others, the partially integrated immigrants may become more inward-looking, taking comfort among their people, religion and social order. Alienation by their own choosing, such immigrants will be further away from the host population. The host population will then feel threatened by those whom they do not understand or want to understand, or resentful that their presence caused or worsened the economic situation.

This autumn may be a very difficult time for governments across Europe, when the rising number of the unemployed will be further augmented by school leavers and university graduates. In Britain, for example, many heavily indebted graduates will find it difficult to find jobs. When there is blanket hiring freeze and more qualified, but slightly older, workers are looking for work, competition for jobs is going to be intense. Time is also against the graduates of 2009: by next year, one of their main assets – youth – will no longer be, since there will be another group of graduates churned out in 2010. A generation blighted and scarred by recession and unemployment does not make for a happy future.

Politicians ought not to cave into the populist and the demagogic. Governments need to foster confidence: if nothing else, this recession has shown how much psychological and social economics and economy are. Policies must be clear. There must be palliative policies to protect the vulnerable and the (potentially) disgruntled. Finally, politicians must look to the future, give a broad picture: what kind of modified capitalist, liberal society they want to create.

I’m a cynic, and a pessimist to boot, so I probably will stock up on canned and tinned food in case of swine flu pandemic / total collapse of social order / anarchy.