Inflation protests raise risk of unrest in Europe

LONDON (HPD) — In Romania, protesters blew horns and drums to show their disappointment with rising costs of living. Citizens took to the streets in France to demand wage increases in line with inflation. Czech protesters protested against the government’s handling of the energy crisis. British railway staff and German pilots went on strike to demand higher wages in the face of rising prices.

Across Europe, rising inflation has sparked a wave of protests and strikes, highlighting growing discontent with rising costs of living and threatening to unleash political instability. With Britain’s prime minister forced to resign after less than two months in office, after her economic plans wreaked havoc on financial markets and further damaged a weakened economy, the risk to political leaders is evident while the population demands measures.

Europeans have seen energy bills and food prices skyrocket because of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Although the price of natural gas fell from the record highs reached in the summer and governments have allocated the not inconsiderable amount of 576,000 million euros (more than 566,000 million dollars) to energy aid for homes and companies since September 2021, according to the Bruegel study center in Brussels, this is not enough for some protesters.

The price of energy has pushed up inflation in the 19 countries that have the euro as their currency to a record 9.9%, making it difficult for people to buy what they need. Some see no choice but to go outside.

“Today, people are forced to use pressure tactics to get a raise” in pay, said Rachid Ouchem, a doctor who was among more than 100,000 people who protested in multiple French cities this week.

The fallout from the war in Ukraine has markedly raised the risk of civil unrest on the continent, according to risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. European leaders have strongly backed Ukraine by sending weapons and promising, or being forced, to give up cheaper Russian oil and natural gas, but the transition has not been easy and threatens to erode public support.

“There is no quick fix to this energy crisis,” said Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst at Verisk Maplecroft. “And if anything, inflation looks like it could be worse next year than it has been this year.”

This means that the relationship between economic pressure and popular opinion about the war in Ukraine “will be really tested,” he added.

In France, which has the lowest inflation rate in the eurozone at 6.2%, railway and transport workers, secondary school teachers and hospital employees responded Tuesday to the call of an oil workers’ union to demand wage increases and protest government intervention in strikes by refinery workers that have caused gasoline shortages.

Days later, thousands of Romanians protested in Bucharest against the price of energy, food and other basic products that organizers say is plunging millions of workers into poverty.

In the Czech capital Prague, a crowd last month demanded the resignation of the pro-Western governing coalition, criticizing its backing of European Union sanctions on Russia. In addition, they pointed to the executive for not doing enough to help homes and businesses affected by the energy rise.

Although there is another protest called in Prague for next week, for the moment the mobilizations have not translated into political changes and the coalition won a third of the seats in the upper house of Parliament in this month’s elections.

In Great Britain, railway employees, nurses, port workers and lawyers, among other groups, have staged a series of strikes in recent months to demand a rise in salaries that adjusts them to inflation that reaches 10.1%, its worst data in 40 years.

Trains did not run during the protests and recent strikes by Lufthansa pilots in Germany and workers from other airlines and airports across the continent in search of better wages have paralyzed air traffic.

Truss’s failed economic stimulus plan, which included extensive tax cuts and multimillion-dollar aid for the energy bill of homes and businesses, without a clear plan to subsidize them, illustrates the complicated situation in which governments find themselves.

“They have very little room for manoeuvre,” Soltvedt said.

The luck has been that, so far, the month of October has been milder than usual, which means less demand for fuel to heat homes, the analyst noted.

But “if there is an unexpected disruption to gas supplies from Europe this winter, we are likely to see a further increase in civil unrest, risk and government instability,” he said.

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