[Previous] [Main Index] [Next]

Saturday, January 3, 2004

EU Social Conflicts and Violence: Letter Bombs Target Top EU Officials. Just The Beginning

Little did I suspect that within days of finishing a mini-series of three articles on surging anti-Semitism in the EU --- its root causes found, essentially, in a welter of strung-out, highly unwelcome changes in EU economies and welfare spending and in the backlash social conflicts and search-for-scapegoats they're provoking --- that the buggy predictions of growing, politically charged strife and violence would find immediate vindication: specifically, a surge of political assassinations, or attempts at them anyway, directed at three top-tier EU officials. What follows is a brief effort at illuminating the latest politically inspired violence, seen against the backdrop of those three earlier buggy articles.

The violent outbursts in question? Political terrorism. Four letter bombs were sent to Romano Prodi, the President of the executive EU Commission, to the new French head of the Eurobank, and to the head of the EU agency in charge of police co-operation. For Prodi, the latest letter bomb was by now a chronic event. Earlier this week, two other bombs were set off in garbage cans near his house. The terrorist perps? According to the Italian police, the letter bombs came from Bologna, a city notorious for housing wild left-wing ultras . . . some involved, it seems, in organized murderous terrorism of Red-Brigade notoriety back in the 1970s and 1980s. Apparently, too, some neo-fascists seem to prefer life in Bologna as well. Must be the brain-damaging water in the pipes there.

The return to political assassination in West Europe isn't entirely new. Two years ago, a law professor in Rome --- chosen by the new Premier Silvo Berlusconi to draw up legislation to reform the tightly regulated labor markets in the country --- was killed by a terrorist. About the same time, the Dutch populist leader, Pim Fortuyn, was murdered in the midst of an electoral campaign . . . this in a country rightly renowned until then for its tolerance and devotion to human rights. If political murder can occur in Holland, it can break out anywhere in the EU. Come to that, Basque terrorists have been killing people for decades in Spain, and in France, Corsican terrorists have been doing the same for years now. Four years ago, a firebomb of a MacDonald's in Britanny killed a French worker. In Northern Ireland and Britain, IRA-inflicted terrorism --- also decades old --- has fortunately come to an end, and maybe for good.

So far, nobody has been killed in the EU by Islamofascist terrorism --- not for want of trying. Several firebombings of synagogues, schools, and other Jewish cultural centers have erupted in France the last three years. In 2001 and 2002, authorities in both Germany and France arrested Muslim terrorists who had intended to blow up synagogues in both countries. In Italy, a network of extremist Islamists was broken up and its members arrested two years ago; they had maps of the Roman water works and enough cyanide to kills tens of thousands of people. And so it goes, nearly every day.

The latest efforts at killing EU leaders --- all involving bombs of various sorts --- apparently have nothing to do with Islamist terrorists. They come from home-grown ideologues full of radical fervor. Ireland's government is sufficiently worried about them --- and street-violence --- that it isn't sure its security forces will be able to handle the expected levels of strife and what have you that will likely erupt when the EU member-governments assemble in Dublin this coming spring for a Summit Meeting.



Most likely. Almost all the evidence points that way. Recall briefly the specific reasons why:

  • For one thing, as the buggy series on the worrying upsurge of anti-Semitism showed --- gloom and pessimism have been found in Eurobarometer opinion surveys to have gripped most of the EU. Less than half the EU populations even think the EU itself is a good thing. See the 2nd article in the series for the stats.

  • For another thing, the externally imposed changes --- a result basically of globalizing forces, endless technological flux, and big shifts in economic dynamism away from West Europe --- have been threatening the comfy, expanding EU welfare state for years, usually resisted on the Continent until very recently, and the best one can say is that the reforms implemented so far --- difficult as they've been --- are only a start. Scandinavia and Holland have done better. In full-tilt economic change for almost two decades, Britain and Ireland have been the pace-setters. Unemployment among young Europeans --- and in the Muslim immigrant areas of all ages --- is itself potentially explosive. It does vary across countries. Everywhere on the Continent, though, youth unemployment is still a serious problem, and potentially strife-ridden.

  • For yet a third thing, the EU itself is caught up in a swirl of change --- expansion eastward, with big shifts in regional subsidies inevitable, and efforts to adopt a new constitution that have bogged down in political stalemate --- and its future isn't clear either. It will no doubt survive. It may even deepen integration. But overcoming the political alienation that mark the EU publics --- the whole point of the new constitution --- remains the overshadowing challenge, and for now it will likely deepen, that alienation, whatever happens to the constitutional proposals themselves.


The Remaining Causes

A fourth and fifth causes of growing social conflict --- one of them potentially explosive --- are partly demographic in nature.

  • The fourth cause? The rapid aging of the EU population, a result of a low birth rate that is shrinking the actual size of the EU native populations, even as more and more Europeans head into retirement age. .

Almost all of them outside of Britain depend on state-financed pensions. These pensions require constant revenue from taxes; and since the work forces in the EU have been shrinking even faster than the size of the populations, the question of finding sufficient tax revenue now looms menacingly on the horizon. Some relief can be found in raising the age of retirement, something already be implemented; but that reform, welcome as it is, is offset by the ever expanding longevity of the EU retirees. In the late 1990s, German pensions were taking up about 10% of all GDP; without big changes, they will double to 20% in a couple of decades.

That rate of expansion is unsustainable. Essentially, either pensions will have to be continually downsized in generosity or taxes will have to be continually raised on the shrinking work forces. Even if the EU governments carry out more economic reforms and hence recover more economic dynamism, it's unlikely that the future growth of GDP would be fast enough to sustain the burdens of financing the pensions of all EU retirees. There is, of course, one more alternative: privatizing pensions. For the time being, outside of Britain where privatization is over a decade old, it seems to be out of the question, a politically explosive alternative.


The Most Explosive Cause of All

Of course, you could always increase immigration. The hitch here is that almost all immigrants would come from the Arab speaking countries or Turkey, and that leads to the fifth cause of growing social strife in the EU --- potentially the most explosive of all, already fueling the right-wing populist breakthroughs in EU politics for three or four years now.

  • The rapid increase in the number of Islamic communities: increasingly young compared to the native EU populations, increasingly full of alienated young men caught up in fundamentalist Islamist appeals, and increasingly the biggest sources of the worrying surges of violent crime all over the EU.

Right now, there are probably 20-25 million Muslims in the EU: getting more precise figures is hard, not least owing to the large number of illegal immigrants hard to track, and problems of defining who is a Muslim or not (do you have to join a mosque to be counted as Islamic?) In less than 15 years or so, they will have doubled most likely to 40-50 million; and looming on the horizon is the tricky problem of what to do with Turkey, a fairly solid democratic and secular Islamic country --- and a good ally in NATO --- but poor and Muslim in its religion where fundamentalist appeals are on the rise too, even if pruned, fortunately, of the extremist rabid sort associated with Wahhabi and Shi-ite Islamisms and sympathies for Islamo-fascist terrorists.

Almost every day, an Islamist terrorist network seems to be uncovered in one EU country or another. That's testimony to the vigilance of police and counter-intelligence authorities. It's also testimony to how pervasive the problem of terrorism is, actually or potentially, in the EU . . . and as the recent letter bombs to the EU officials shows, such political terrorism is not confined, apparently, to Islamist fanatics alone.


A Cycle of Extremism: The Polar Ends Feeding On One Another

What can be expected is a growing cycle of Islamist extremism on one side --- including more violent crime, more support for Islamist terrorism, more demands for special treatment for the swelling numbers of Muslim minorities --- and on the other political backlashes among the native EU populations. Some of those backlashes will be handled effectively, we can hope, by means of existing democratic institutions and compromise. Others will likely fuel growing right-wing extremist populisms. Already, according to a very recent French public opinion survey, Le Pen's National Front --- now supported by 22% of the population --- has a much wider following in the sentiments of the French public. More worrying still, only 42% of Frenchmen now find his extremist views, full of race-baiting, unacceptable.

The consequences for growing anti-Semitism --- strong sentiments of which were found to exist among about a third of the EU populations (with big variations across countries) --- aren't hard to foresee.