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UPDATED: August 22, 2011 NO. 34 AUGUST 25, 2011
Ailing Europe
Escalating problems threaten stability across Europe

PUTTING DIFFERENCES ASIDE: Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (right) meets Muslim immigrants at a mosque in Oslo on July 29, a week after a bomb blast and a shooting attack devastated the capital city (WANG QINGQIN)

British society is sick, said Prime Minister David Cameron on August 10 admitting that his nation had fallen ill after neglecting its domestic health. In early August, Britain was overcome with the worst riots in more than two decades.

Britain is not the only country in Europe to suffer such ailments. On July 22, a Norwegian gunman committed one of the most heinous terrorist attacks in the Scandinavian country's history. These events, along with frequent demonstrations and violence, show Europe now faces serious social problems.

The primary problem is the conflict between immigrants and mainstream society. Many EU countries have a large number of immigrants. These immigrants are mainly Muslims from North Africa, countries along the Mediterranean and Pakistan. They have made great contributions to Europe's post-war economic recovery. Though they have long been at the bottom of the social hierarchy, generally, they are peaceful.

But the recent events show European people's attitudes toward immigrants has changed. Some of them have adopted a hostile attitude, especially Muslims. This has caused problems. On the one hand, Europe needs immigrants given its demographic deficit caused by a low birth rate and rapid aging. On the other hand, however, it is not successful in assimilating and integrating these immigrants.

Terrorist organizations tend to use immigrants' dissatisfaction to convert them into homegrown terrorists. The terrorist attack in Britain on July 7, 2005, and the attack in Sweden at the end of 2010 were both committed by descendants of Muslim immigrants.

Europe's failure to integrate immigrants into society may lead to more problems in the future. European society's fear, exclusion and restriction of immigrants and immigrant hostilities toward European society may form a vicious cycle. The European social model and values will face serious challenges.

The second problem is the rise of the right wing and Christian radicalism. Under the banner of anti-immigration, the right wing has surged and produced a significant impact on public opinion in many European countries. In Norway, more than half of the population stands against immigration. Even in traditionally liberal countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden, immigration policy and racial issues often become hot topics in election campaigns.

The third problem is the public's disappointment with the government and politicians keeps accumulating. Currently, the sovereign debt crisis continues to spread in Europe. EU member states have introduced large-scale austerity policies, which took a heavy toll on welfare spending. As a result, ordinary people experienced a decrease in purchasing power and living standards. The rich, especially bankers, were hardly affected by the crisis as they received financial assistance from the government. Ordinary people felt the government had treated them unfairly.

In this context, strikes and demonstrations, often accompanied by fierce riots, broke out one after another in the EU. Since the beginning of this year, Britain has witnessed continuous protests. Greece and Spain have also suffered from frequent strikes and protests.

Last but not least, many young people in Europe are falling out of touch with values and ethics. Most of the participants of the French unrest in 2005, the Greek turmoil in 2008 and the recent British riot were young people. A lack of self discipline, of course, is a reason for their violent behavior. But more importantly, social problems are at stake.

For instance, unemployment has been universal among young people in European countries amid the economic crisis and fiscal austerity. Latest statistics by the German Federal Statistical Office and the European Commission show the average unemployment rate of young people under 24 is 20.5 percent in the 27 EU countries. Millions of young people cannot find jobs. These jobless youth can easily get on the wrong track.

The gap between the rich and the poor has also disillusioned young Europeans. Worse still, low social mobility makes it extremely difficult for them to move up the ladder and get ahead. This increases their discontent toward society.

These problems have not emerged overnight. For long, European politicians have focused on elections as well as political struggles, and neglected the young demographic. Had they adopted concrete plans to deal with social problems, for instance, by paying more attention to immigrants and jobless young people, the situation would not have been so severe. Now it is time for European countries to make great efforts to address their domestic social problems.

The author is deputy director of the Institute of European Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

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