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4th Mar 2024

EU states monitor spread of civil unrest

  • Icelandic riot police (Photo: Wikipedia)

EU member states are "intensively" monitoring the risk of spreading civil unrest in Europe, as riots over the economic crisis erupt in Iceland following street clashes in Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Greece.

The worst street disturbances for 50 years struck Reykjavik on Thursday (22 January), as police streamed a hardcore of a few hundred anti-government protesters in the early morning with pepper spray and then tear gas after an earlier crowd of around 2,000 gathered outside the Althingi, the country's parliament, to demand the government resign.

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The crowds surrounded the building while banging pots and pans and shooting off fireworks. The demonstrators also lobbed paving stones, rolls of toilet paper and shoes.

It was the second day of protests after on Wednesday protesters jostled Minister Geir Haarde's limousine, pummelling it with cans of soft drinks and eggs.

The regular demonstrations have strained the government coalition, with the ruling Independence Party on Thursday saying it "realises that there will be elections this year."

Iceland is not an EU member, but the protests could result in it being the first European country to see its government brought down by the economic crisis.

"It's a democracy that has its problems like many other states as a result of the economic crisis," European Commission external relations spokeswoman Christiane Hohmann said.

The events in Iceland come hot on the heels of anti-government clashes in Latvia, Lithuania and Bulgaria in recent days, where economic discontent mixed with local issues erupted in violence.

Trade unions in Greece meanwhile warn that further strikes are still likely, after protracted street fighting by students and young workers in December that caused billions in damage.

Concern about the spreading unrest is high on the EU agenda, as governments find it increasingly more expensive to borrow money, putting pressure on social programmes.

"There are concerns. The EU shares them. It is one of the major challenges for the Spring European Council," said a senior EU official, referring to the quarterly gathering of EU leaders.

EU ambassadors in Brussels are discussing the issue and receiving "regular updates", according to another official, although he added that more intelligence on the situation is needed to see whether the riots are "part of a social trend" or manipulation by opposition elements.

Lithuania's interior minister visited Latvia to discuss public security problems related to the economic crisis even before the Vilnius and Riga riots last week.

Lithuania is currently collecting "all available information about similar events in other member states" and sharing it with "concerned" countries Estonia, France, Germany and Latvia, a Lithuanian diplomat told the EUobserver.

"Intensive share of information" is also taking place between the Baltic states and Poland, he added.

Following the ructions in Vilnius, 11 further peaceful demonstrations were organised around the country by trade-unions.

"Due to the declining economic [situation] and problems raised by it, a possibility of similar meetings still remains, but we hope that riots will not be repeated," he said.

More to come

In a Wednesday interview with the BBC, the head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, predicted that the economic downturn will cause more unrest.

"[It could happen] almost everywhere, in Europe certainly, and also in emerging countries," he said. "You've had some strikes that look like normal, usual strikes, but it may worsen in the coming months."

Asked which countries were most at risk, Mr Strauss-Kahn mentioned Hungary, Ukraine, Latvia and Belarus. "It can be my own country [France], the UK, it can be eastern Europe," he said.

"The situation is really, really serious," he added.

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