In the latest edition of our Peace Focus series, A continent of peace?, we identify some of the factors underlining rising tensions and insecurity within Europe – in particular in European Union (EU) member states – and the challenges this poses to the resilience of citizens and communities. We also ask whether, in order to manage these increasing tensions and the threat of violent conflict, Europe should adopt a peacebuilding approach – something usually reserved for non-European, fragile states.
Despite the crisis in Ukraine, Europe is not usually the first region that comes to mind when we think of conflict and peacebuilding. Nonetheless, the global economic crisis of 2008 has put considerable strain on the social relations underpinning peace and stability in a variety of European countries, leading to rising tensions and insecurity.
In this paper, we identify three main themes that we believe are behind this shift. Firstly, growing inequality. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), governments’ response to the financial crisis has further increased the gap between the rich and poor in Europe – the drop in income for the bottom 10% of the working population has been twice that experienced by the top 10%. And in countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain, the traditional ‘safety net’ of the family has come under increasing pressure, with multiple family members under- or unemployed.
Secondly, rising inequality has also affected cultural inequality. Countries across Europe have witnessed a rise in divisive narratives that scapegoat certain sections of society and communities, such as immigrants, Muslims and welfare recipients, all of whom have been portrayed by the media and politicians in simplistic and derogatory terms. These dynamics were clearly visible in this year’s European elections, with growing support for parties with far-right and anti-immigration platforms.
Thirdly, and connected to the other two themes, is the crisis of faith in political institutions. In a number of countries, citizens are expressing disillusionment and apathy towards power and governance structures, as illustrated by declining voter turnout in national and EU elections.
It is the interaction between these three themes, at a time of increased global vulnerability, that is creating greater fragility across Europe, deepening divides and opening up spaces for violence and exclusion.
So what could a peacebuilding approach offer? By using the experience of peacebuilding around the world and situating these challenges within the wider global dynamics, we can identify and highlight those issues that are most likely to corrode stability and, in doing so, open up the opportunity to learn from successful methods for addressing them – at home and abroad. This will be a major focus of our work in Europe in 2015.
Photo: Labour protesters in Marseille, France, 2010. Courtesy of marcovdz, Creative Commons