When there's rioting in Iceland, you know we're in trouble. The small Scandinavian country in the middle of the Atlantic isn't usually associated with domestic strife, but rather high quality of life and abundant natural resources. But yesterday thousands of people took to the streets to protest the government's handling of the economy, which has plunged in recent months as a result of the larger global turmoil. Gross national product is down two-thirds, there has been a 45 percent rise in unemployment and the country is defaulting on loan repayments. In October the country's financial system collapsed and its currency plunged under the weight of billions of dollars in foreign debt taken on by its banks.
These weren't just mild demonstrations. Riot police had to fight with a large number of violent protesters outside the country's parliament. Pepper spray was fired at the protesters and 30 arrests were made.
Coming on the heels of the riots in Greece last month, many in Europe are becoming increasingly worried that the economic turmoil could lead to violent clashes between disaffected people and their governments across the continent. Eastern Europe is seen as particularly vulnerable to such violence, with some even predicting a "spring of discontent" in the region to be around the corner.
Eastern Europe has been hit hard by the financial crisis, especially Bulgaria, Romania and the Baltic states - all recent EU entrants. As the Guardian recently reported, incidents have been steadily increasing. Last week police in Vilnius, Lithuania had to tear-gas a crowd of demonstrators protesting tax rises and benefit cuts designed to save the state from bankruptcy. Sofia, Bulgaria has also seen recent widespread violence in which 150 people were arrested. Riga, Latvia has seen street battles as well.
These Eastern European economies are increasingly experiencing unexpected turmoil after years of posting double-digit growth. Their anger will likely be compounded by the fact that they were expecting that growth to continue, particularly after they joined the EU. The post-cold war governments are still new and relatively weak, and could be unprepared to deal with widespread unrest. And the increasing hostility isn't just being directed at the governments. Attacks on minorities are also becoming increasingly common, particularly against Roma (gypsy) communities. Recently 700 members of the far-right Workers' Party in the Czech Republic fought with police when they were prevented from marching on a Roma area.
Of course Iceland is just about as far as you can get from Eastern Europe without leaving the continent. If the global economic turmoil can cause rioting in a country with one of the highest quality of life ratings in the world, could rioting be far behind in the major Western economies? And even if it isn't, how will the major economies of Western Europe respond to growing political unrest to their east, in countries with which they are now united? Clearly the EU has an obligation to help Eastern Europe through the financial turmoil, but if the situation becomes fundamentally dangerous, can the EU do anything to stem the violence without a proper policing military force?
The "spring of discontent" will be an anxious time for Europe.