EU's annus horribilis

2010-12-28 11:11

Brussels - It was Europe's "annus horribilis", with game-changing bailouts for Greece and Ireland, more emergency rescues seemingly guaranteed and tens of millions of citizens expressing rage when the boom times turned to bust.

In May three people died at a bank in Athens after rioters threw firebombs in anger at the price to be paid by ordinary Greek people for their government's €110bn international bailout.

Greek President Carolos Papoulias warned that his country stood on the "edge of the abyss".

Three days later, on May 9, the 27 European Union states produced an initial trillion-dollar defence against a rising tide of public debt.

But by December the EU was forced to turn its emergency fund into a permanent, potentially limitless commitment to rescue partner governments who squander the euro's credit rating.

That became unavoidable after Ireland had to call in €67.5bn of international loans (and raid its public pension fund) to plug a black hole in its banking system.

Experts predict that Portugal at least will also need financial aid, with Spain and, all of a sudden, rudderless Belgium likewise firmly in speculators' sights going into the New Year.

The 17-nation eurozone (Estonia joins on January 1) now faces radical reform if it is to compete with the world's new developing giants for high-flying international investment.

According to Alain Lamassoure, chairperson of the European Parliament's budget committee and a member of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's governing party, the price could be EU integration built up over decades.

"If the union's financial policy is decided in Berlin, its budgetary policy in London, its farming policy in Paris, its regional policy in Warsaw, its military policy in Washington, its energy supply in Moscow, and its future nowhere, well, there's no more Europe," he said.

Views on wealth, poverty, taxation, politics and government changed irretrievably in Europe's year of living dangerously - and ordinary people did not hide their anger.

Austerity, from the Greek meaning bitter or harsh, when wine or fruit makes the tongue dry, was one of those words that entered the lexicon of everyday life.

Decisions with decades-long effects

A Europe-wide day of protest at the end of September gave focus to many who sensed they were paying for their masters' errors.

In Dublin, the gates of the Irish parliament were rammed by a cement-mixer truck with "Toxic Anglo Bank" written on it, while in Brussels as many as 100 000 marched in protest.

The included a group of Romanian police officers facing salary cuts, pension raids and compulsory redundancies who travelled two days and nights on a bus from the Black Sea.

In a neatly unpleasant irony, they ran smack into riot police protecting EU headquarters, banks blamed for excessive risk-taking and designer stores that hid behind private security guards.

The resentment only grew when angry students clashed in December with police outside the "mother of parliaments" in London, where tuition fees are set to treble and the coalition's deputy prime minister was labelled a "liar and a snake".

David Cameron, the Conservative premier, said in announcing deep British cuts that the decisions taken under austerity "will stay with us for years, perhaps decades".

Footballing icon Eric Cantona failed with a Facebook call for people to withdraw their savings and bring down the banks, but people didn't have the former Manchester United star's savings to withdraw.

They faced and still face massive cuts to public services, capping and reduction of salaries, bumper tax increases, cuts to social welfare and pension fund raids.

In France more than one million people came out to demonstrate against pension reforms on eight out of nine days of protests, but parliament voted them through anyway.

The effect on national politics across Europe is clear, with far-right parties currently in government in Italy and sitting in the parliaments of Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, Latvia, Slovakia, Sweden and the Netherlands.

"It's the European version of the Tea Party movement," said Fabrice Pothier, director of the Carnegie Europe think tank, referring to the ultra-conservative faction in the United States. "A very reactionary response to the crisis."