The demonstrations against Wall Street are contagious. Not only have they spread around the US, but calls for “Occupy London” may soon see an assembly of protesters against the banks and financial institutions in the City(London) echoing the criticism of those in NY who demand accountability from those they see as responsible for the great recession of the last three years. Could Frankfurt be next?
Although any such initiative will likely be a small group, there is no doubt that there are many more who might sympathize with such a demonstration. The degree of skepticism leveled at big banks and political leaders is a growing phenomenon in Europe, as well as in the US. One can measure that in declining political party membership, protest movements, and a general mood that reflects a mixture of pessimism and fear about the future.
While the appearance of tea party activists in the US is now being matched by the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters, the search for ways to express dissatisfaction with the world is widespread. The ability of the political leaders to sooth these feelings is limited, as are their own options in dealing with the problems they face. There appears to be a vicious circle in which impatient voters generate unrealistic responses from politicians who are anxious about both the challenges they face, as well as their own professional future.
The struggle in Europe to get a grip on the financial instabilities in multiple countries – not just Greece – is proving to be a staggering problem, one embroiled in both domestic politics, as well as arguments about both the cause and the cure.
The efforts to forge a plan to cap the danger of default in Greece depends, to a large extent, on the ability of Germany and her primary partners to shore up the European Financial Stability Facility, EFSF. They must do so with enough capital, and confidence, to quiet both the markets and the public concerns about whether such a cap can even be implemented. And perhaps those worries are real. The emergency meetings coming up in Brussels on October 23rd are potentially set to prepare the public for a default, even if there is reluctance to call it that.
One of the concerns Germans share is the trauma of seeing ever increasing demands for their money to be sent to a bottomless pit of debt in Greece and other profligate European states. How far away is Spain from pulling an emergency switch? Or Italy? Or even France? The scenarios can be written for each case.
Out of such concerns come conclusions that the Germans are having second thoughts about Europe’s economic integration goals. The arguments in Germany about the future course have already been brought to Germany’s Supreme Court twice, which have resulted in mixed messages about how much sovereignty Germany is – or should be – willing to give up for the sake of Europe.
Nevertheless, Chancellor Merkel plows forward, arguing repeatedly now that Germany’s destiny is tied to the euro. In some ways, that argument misses the mark. The euro is not simply a currency, but rather a symbol of something which is far more important – confidence in the future of the entire union.
Letting Off Some Steam
Throughout this whole crisis, as countries on both sides of the Atlantic look to point out each other’s current faults, the distaste for government is growing among the general populations of all the countries involved. Even though the protests and occupations of financial institutions may not be visible in every city, the overall dissatisfaction is. With a growing laundry list of issues and a healthy dose of uncertainty, including an unpredictable U.S. election in 2012, the cause for concern has its reasons. It is, in fact, this level of concern that is making it so hard for leaders in Europe and the U.S. to sell any sort of rescue package for the future – this is especially true for the idea of treaty changes and further integration in Europe.
It is, therefore, striking how many Germans visiting the US these days comment on how pessimistic Americans seem to be about their future. From the demonstrations in Wall Street to the Tea Party demands, upset Americans have made their presence felt. However, this reaction is not an isolated event. As European policy makers continue to drag their feet, “Occupy London” may soon find roots throughout the entire continent. And as the term “austerity measure” appears more often, the near anarchy on the streets of Athens may be repeated elsewhere.
No matter where one looks, there appears to be more of a need among people to let off steam about their concerns – on the streets of London or New York, maybe even in Frankfurt as well. That might make some people feel better. However, in the end there is still the question: what is it that is truly being occupied? Is it a place, a problem, or a prescription for relief? Either way, the true magnitude of this dissatisfaction has likely not yet been reached.
This essay appeared in the October 14, 2011 AICGS Advisor.