Amid the wave of unrest and instability caused by the Russia-Ukraine war, and the resulting radical economic distortions on the European continent, European countries seem more vulnerable to fundamental societal shocks. This has prompted some to discuss the possibility of Europe undergoing a "European Spring" scenario, similar to what the Arab world experienced in the past. Although indicators of political, economic, and societal unrest in Europe have increased following a series of crises—most notably the Russian-Ukrainian crisis and Britain’s exit from the European Union, not to mention the retreat of the traditional right and left in favor of extremist currents—these circumstantial indicators must coincide with structural factors in order to talk about popular revolutionary change and replacement of fundamental values and ideology in Europe.
Symptoms of Crisis
European countries are showing several symptoms of upheaval that may increase instability, most notably the following:
1. Growing indicators of the economic crisis: Since the start of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, in particular, prices for petroleum products and natural gas have risen remarkably, in some cases nearly 80% more than the price of these commodities before the outbreak of the crisis. Meanwhile, food prices have increased about 60% in some of these countries.
By wintertime, when prices are expected to increase even more, these increases may lead to extreme difficulties in living conditions, which will in turn stoke civil unrest throughout Europe, including street protests and demonstrations. According to the latest statistics, Germany and Norway are the most advanced economies that may suffer from societal upheaval due to an expected wave of union and labor strikes, but the list of countries in Europe with the greatest potential for societal risk includes Bosnia Herzegovina, Switzerland, Holland, Cyprus, and Ukraine.
2. Radical change in political preferences: Over the last five years, even before the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, signs of a fundamental shift in European political preferences had begun to emerge and develop. In contrast with the traditional competition between the right and center left in the major European countries, led by France, Germany, and Italy, as well as the long-standing stability of moderate governing regimes in Scandinavia, extreme right-wing parties in particular have made a quantum leap in popularity and are a problematic element in electoral dynamics.
After the National Rally Party, led by Marine Le Pen, achieved impressive results in the French presidential elections of 2017 and 2022, without reaching power, the Brothers of Italy Party recently won the Italian parliamentary elections, making Giorgia Meloni the head of the new government. Although this shift in Italy did not gain momentum as a result of a far-right party winning a majority, some analysts describe the Meloni government as the furthest right since Mussolini. In addition, a Swedish party with "neo-Nazi" roots has succeeded in capitalizing on anti-immigrant sentiment, winning more than 20% of the vote in the elections held this past September. All these factors are indicators of the gradual rise of a radical shift in the political equation in favor of preferences that have not held sway for more than fifty years.
3. Rearrangement of public priorities: Over the last two decades, the priorities of economic well-being and the shift to clean energy have dominated the political agenda of European governments, given that the basic needs of societies had largely been met. However, with the rising wave of terrorist operations in France, England, Belgium, Austria, and others, and the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, not to mention the refugee flows caused by the war in Syria and the displacement from Ukraine, security considerations and basic needs (such as food and energy) have begun to dominate the concerns of European public opinion, and, hence, the action plans of governments.
Although this aforementioned shift is justified, it is considered, on one hand, an indicator of a crisis of confidence in the European integration project, which has stumbled in the face of fundamental challenges. On the other hand, the shift can be seen as an erosion of the hierarchy of European needs, which may call for an extraordinary awakening to remedy the current situation, as well as a review of the national security and defense capabilities of each EU country.
4. Instability of governing regimes: While Western political regimes have long been known for stability, continuity, and firmly-established rules of the democratic game, one of the symptoms of societal shock that European countries are currently experiencing is the loose grip of governments and rapid fluctuations in leadership positions.
For example, in Britain, after Boris Johnson resigned as prime minister over his involvement in ethics scandals, his successor, Liz Truss, resigned after less than two months at the helm, due to her failure to implement a promised economic reform plan. Likewise, the French president’s party, La République En Marche!, lost its absolute majority in the parliamentary elections held last June, pushing Macron to make fundamental changes to ministerial portfolios and advisory positions to align with the new political reality in parliament.
General elections held this year in other European countries (Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Italy, Bulgaria, and Austria) produced key changes in the position of president or prime minister, or at least in the main ministerial portfolios. Calls for change are continuing or mounting in other countries, such as Greece, Croatia, Finland, and others.
The mingling of these factors does not mean the automatic or direct emergence of a "European Spring," along the lines of the so-called "Arab Spring." There are a set of conditional factors that must coincide with the current circumstances for the situation to become something resembling an overall political and societal revolution, with perhaps the most important conditional factors including the following:
1. The political structure of the governing regimes: In contrast to developing countries and their political realities, most of Europe—despite the radical shifts in favor of far-right parties and populist, nationalist discourse—follows a parliamentary system of government, which may create a type of balance between various actors in which all currents are permitted proportional representation in the government, without one person, entity, or group of individuals monopolizing all the functions of the state, thus, minimizing the possibility of a political vacuum that could spark revolutions. The same rule applies to European semi-presidential systems in which the opposition enjoys either a majority in parliament or a very reasonable space for expressing disapproval and opposition.
2. The economic cost of public revolutions: One of the most important drivers of revolutionary movements in the Middle East was deteriorating economic and living conditions. Nearly 12 years since the outbreak of the first revolutionary movement in Tunisia, both Arab and Western societies have realized that the cost of economic reform, by destroying societal governing mechanisms at the root, may have a far greater political, economic, and social cost than they can withstand.
The dire economic situation in most Arab countries that saw a revolutionary political movement may be one of the most significant deterrents against Europeans undertaking similar revolutionary movements, especially since the economic deterioration in Europe is not due primarily to the corruption of ruling elites, but to domestic and international factors that public revolutions may not improve or change, including the Russia-Ukraine war.
3. Expected foreign support for governments: At times of political turmoil, existing governments need foreign political and economic support, which may determine whether these governments are able to hang on or must relinquish power. In general, amid the revolutionary movement in the Arab world, the US and some Western countries emerged in support of some anti-regime movements, even making efforts to force existing governments to accept radical change or resign.
In the case of Europe, the close geopolitical ties between US and European interests may cause the former to be non-supportive of any change movements, as long as the governing regimes are already democratic, and as long as the revolutionary movement is expected to have dire consequences for the disintegration of the EU and perhaps NATO in the face of mounting pressures and threats from both Russia and China.
4. Reasonable space remaining for change: One of the key drivers of revolution is the absence of any political prospects for possible change in the foreseeable future. In those situations, revolutionary movements rush to tip the political scales in the hope that the desired change will occur. In Europe, despite the aforementioned complexities of the current scene, there is still a reasonable space for the desired change to occur. Although rapid changing of governments and leaders is an unfamiliar phenomenon in European political life, it is, at the same time, an appropriate outlet for expressing the fundamental changes taking place in these societies.
In conclusion, despite the multiple aspects of political and societal upheaval in Europe, the chances of a "European Spring" scenario remain foggy, given a reading of the current situation in light of conditional factors supporting this hypothesis. Alongside the aforementioned conditional factors, the nature of the cultural and societal composition of Europeans must not be overlooked. Liberal, individualist ideology and ethnic and cultural diversity must be seen as factors affecting the degree to which these societies are capable of stimulating or discouraging revolutionary movements.