Published:  12:52 AM, 07 November 2017

EU-Arab summit comes at a crucial time

Political and business leaders are making final preparations for the 2017 European Union-Arab Summit in Athens on Thursday and Friday. The agenda, focused around the key theme of 'Toward a Solid Alliance', is focused around opportunities for cooperation and partnership after a period of tremendous political and economic tumult in both geographies.

While most of the attention was focused on Arab Spring, Europe went through significant political and economic instability since the 2008 financial crisis. Millions have taken to the streets and administrations in more than half of the 28 EU states fell or were voted out of office from Spring 2010 to 2012 alone, partly because of economic downturn and/or austerity measures. Within the core Eurozone, 11 of 14 governments collapsed or lost elections during those same two years.

More eye-catching still, however, has been the remarkable wave of political activity, starting in Tunisia, which has spanned out across North Africa and the Middle East. This includes revolutionary changes of power in Egypt and Libya; transfer of power in Yemen; plus demonstrations and uprisings in countries as disparate as Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Oman.

The use of the word "Spring", with the allusions to the 1848 Revolutions and the so-called Prague Spring of 1968, was widely used initially as a positive reference, indicating potentially major movement towards self-determination and opportunity in the Arab world. However, that initial hope has been dashed in many states.

Indeed, some now use the term Arab or 'Military Winter' instead, which refers to the instability and violence in much of the region. This includes the menace of Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), and the ongoing instability in Syria, which continues to help drive massive population displacement and migration.

This disparate range of international political protest and disruption, which - of course - has also been prevalent in some other areas of the globe too, has reportedly been described as "a revolutionary wave, like 1848" by Sir Nigel Inkster, former director of operations for the United Kingdom Secret Intelligence Service. Others have compared the situation to 1914, 1968 and 1989.

Whatever the validity of these historical analogies, it is clear that there are some genuinely new factors to the post-2008 period, including the role of social media and other technologies. Moreover, this so-called 'wave' of political instability has diverse origins with economic issues not the only driver.

Thus, unrest in the Arab world has often stemmed from deep-seated political and socio-economic discontent that pre-dates the financial crisis. Post-2008, however, factors including liquidity crunches, increased food prices, and unemployment spikes exacerbated these longer-standing grievances.

In the EU, the role of economic downturn and austerity has been central to unrest in numerous countries, especially the Eurozone crisis that impacted Greece, which hosts this week's summit. Even here though, unrest has tapped into pre-existing disquiet with established political parties and systems, hence the meteoric rise of new parties like the now-governing Syriza in Athens.

Going forward, a key question is whether political instability will now tail off, especially if economic growth sustains itself in much of the world in coming years. While this is possible, there are at least two sets of factors that will continue to fuel protest and uprising in some countries.

Firstly, there are drivers, unrelated to the financial crisis, that have been common to much of the political unrest, that will endure. This includes the disruptive role of social media.There remains debate about how instrumental social media has been in fomenting political instability.

However, whether one sees it as an essential component that translated discontent into concrete action, or accentuated what was already-inevitable, indisputably it has played an enabling, mobilising role that may only grow as technology advances and proliferates.

Secondly, even if the worst of the financial crisis has now passed, its consequences endure, especially for the young. People aged 15-24 constitute less than 20 per cent of the global population, but approximately double the percentage of the unemployed. This puts many at risk of long-term damage to their earnings potential and job prospects, fuelling discontent.

Youth unemployment in numerous countries in the Arab world is above 50 per cent. In the Middle East, the problem is acute because it has the world's biggest youth bulge comprising a steadily increasing number of educated people. Moreover, more than five million people in the EU aged 15-24 are unable to find work (over 20 per cent), despite the improving Eurozone economy, as career opportunity structures have been swept away for too much. This has given rise to concern, including from German Chancellor Angela Merkel about a "lost generation", especially in Greece and Spain where youth unemployment has been more than 50 per cent.

It is in this context that this week's Arab-EU Summit will be held and the goal is now to hold annual events, given the importance of both geographies to each other - from political, security and economic perspectives. Their interdependence is, for instance, highlighted by the migration crisis in Europe that has emanated in large part from the instability across the Middle East.

This week's summit comes at an opportune moment, given the significant threat of further political unrest. While circumstances will vary from country to country, instability will potentially be fuelled not just by legacy of the financial crisis - such as high youth unemployment - but also longer-standing political and socio-economic discontent that social media technologies are lending fresh impetus to.

The writer is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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