Adrian Hamilton: The Spanish are having their own Arab Spring

International Studies

Thursday 02 June 2011 00:00

While President Obama was in London extolling the Arabs for seeking the kind of democracy enjoyed in the West, the Spanish were occupying the main square in Madrid demanding the same things as the Arab protesters.

"Break the shackles of the past" was one banner seen among the tents of the indignados ("the indignant") while a more literary effort declared: "If you don't let us dream we won't let you sleep." Even in Granada's Albaicin the youth were being summoned by Twitter and Facebook to attend protests.

Of course you can draw too closely the parallels between Madrid and Cairo. A lot of Spanish angst, as Greek anger, has been caused by the financial crisis and the measures taken by their governments to cut the deficits.

But this is not a repeat of traditional union-led, left-wing organised demonstrations against government of the sort we have seen so often in the past. Far from it. The peculiarity of European politics at the moment is that the revolt against cuts is directed against anyone in power to the benefit of the party in opposition.

In Spain, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the socialist prime minister who has tried hard to keep Spain's finances solvent, has been blown aside in the latest local elections in favour of the right wing PP party founded by one of General Franco's ministers, which isn't expected to do much different if it gets into power. Yet in the German regional elections it is the right-of-centre Chancellor Angela Merkel who is being hammered by left-wing and Green candidates, despite the fact that Germany is doing rather nicely at the moment.

The Spanish protests, in contrast, are not a left-right affair. Rather, like the Arab movements, they are demonstrating against the whole system and the major parties held to be part of it. The means of organisation through social networks is the same as in the Arab uprising. The occupation of public places and the establishment of committees to handle food and rubbish draws on the North African example.

Some of the causes are also the same. Spain now has the highest rate of unemployment in the EU, with a youth unemployment of 45 per cent which is pretty close to the rates experienced through much of the Middle East.

Corruption is held to be widespread, with over 100 candidates in the local election being accused of it. The banking crisis has exposed– as in Ireland – a system in which financiers, developers and politicians hug each other all too closely.

Spain isn't on the point of revolution, any more than Ireland or even Greece. But a situation in which the young, and indeed many older people, feel excluded by existing political structures and in which they sense little reason to hope that it will get better in the future is not a sustainable one. Looking around Europe, it is hard to find countries in which you couldn't see the similarities.

To claim that we in the West should congratulate ourselves on an Arab Spring which looks to us as its example is just to misunderstand its nature and our response. The protesters in the Arab squares are demonstrating against an autocracy and corruption which have become insufferable. The demonstrators in Spain are saying the same about their democratic structures.

Where it all ends, no one knows. Theoretically democracies should be more adept at adjusting to changing pressures. But looking around America and Britain, as much as Spain, that is an optimistic assumption at the moment. The Middle East world has risen up just as the West has stumbled down with the financial crisis and consequent recession.

There is really no sign at the moment in its leadership or in its processes that western democracies see a way of re-invigorating themselves and giving hope to the coming generation. Rather the measures taken to cope with the financial crisis are doing the opposite.

Far from it being a moment for self-congratulation, the Arab Spring should be causing us to look at ourselves and see what lessons it has for us.

The nuclear lessons not learnt

The International Atomic Energy Agency may think Japan's response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster "exemplary" but that is not what any Japanese I know believes. To them the performance of the Tokyo Electric Power Co and the government has been truly abysmal. The reactions were late, the public pronouncements misleading and any openness non-existent. With the plant still leaking and likely to go on leaking until November, there is still no confidence in the authorities, as every opinion poll shows.

That, in essence, is the problem for nuclear power today. The experts producing the preliminary IAEA report yesterday see it as a matter of technicalities – mistakes made, lessons in prevention – the ordinary citizen wants reassurance, or at least a sense that they know what is going on, what the risks are and what, if anything, the ordinary citizen should do about it.

You can produce all the reports you want about how "the tsunami hazard for several sites was underestimated," and conclude "nuclear designers and operators should appropriately evaluate and protect against the risks of all natural hazards, and should periodically update those assessments and assessment methodologies," but what matters in the end is public confidence in the technology. And that has been badly shattered, as much by the mishandling of information after the tsunami as the catastrophe itself.

Japan is turning its back on nuclear; so is Germany. The IAEA report will do nothing to change that.

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