Governments fear protests against high energy prices could weaken public support for Ukraine
FREMONT, CA: The commitment of governments that have so far remained united in their costly economic battle with Russia is being tested as a wave of protests brought on by skyrocketing living costs and an impending recession sweeping across Europe.
Tensions between European capitals over richer nations' greater assistance packages, which poorer neighbours claim are distorting the market and exacerbating the crisis, are also being fueled by the public backlash against high electricity and heating bills as the temperatures start to fall. Thousands of people demonstrated in France in support of increased salaries. On strike, teachers, railroad, and healthcare workers organised marches that snarled traffic and disrupted public transportation in dozens of cities, including Paris.
Tens of thousands have protested in recent weeks in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Germany, calling for salary increases to offset inflation, more state assistance, government involvement in the energy market, and in certain cases, the lifting of sanctions on Russia. Germany has experienced weekly protest rallies since the end of the summer, many of them concentrated in the nation's former communist east, despite measures to support households and businesses totalling 264 billion euros, or USD 266 billion, according to Brussels-based think tank Bruegel, by far the largest such package in Europe.
There is still strong public sympathy for Ukraine in Europe, and the French protests have not focused on Paris' Ukraine policy. However, protesters in eastern Germany have taken a more political stance, calling for the lifting of Western sanctions against Russia and warning Europe about the potential political repercussions should Moscow's conflict with Ukraine continue.
The turmoil in eastern Germany is partially a result of long-standing regional grievances and a local political climate that has long fostered relations with Russia. According to recent polls, a sizable majority of German citizens continue to strongly back Kyiv and the Russia policy of Chancellor Olaf Scholz's administration.
The eastern anti-sanctions demonstrations have mainly been avoided by centrist political parties, unions, and civil society organisations. However, the far-right, pro-Russian opposition party Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which was behind some of the protests, has benefited from the atmosphere. Politico's compilation of polls indicates a jump in its approval ratings from ten per cent at the time of the invasion in February to 15 per cent, its highest level in over three years.
There have been many but so far modest protests in Germany. But despite the government's relief measures, several moderate parties and union leaders have started planning rallies across the rest of the nation to call for increased public assistance. This is an indication that economic unrest, if not hostility to helping Ukraine, is growing.
Manfred Gullner, the chairman of the polling organisation Forsa, stated, This is merely the calm before the storm—the unrest is huge, and people have no sense that the administration has a tenable plan to handle the situation.
According to Mr Gullner, nine per cent of Germans believe Mr Scholz has a clear plan to deal with the energy problem even though seventy-five per cent of all households are attempting to cut back on their use of heating and electricity. According to him, the AfD is currently drawing votes from all major parties as well as regular nonvoters.
Georg Maier, the interior minister of the eastern German state of Thuringia, stated that he was concerned about the recruitment efforts made by various far-right organisations at the demonstrations.
The impact of increased energy prices on individuals and small businesses will be mitigated by government subsidies, but many factories have slowed down production due to growing expenses. The massive German chemical company BASF SE announced that it would permanently reduce production in Europe while increasing capacity in China and other countries.
According to Clemens Fuest, the chairman of the Ifo Institute, a government-advising economic think tank, the German economy is in for a challenging winter. According to Mr. Fuest, every fourth company is considering layoffs and industrial investors are being forced to decide if it is still wise to invest in Europe given the possibility of continuously high energy prices.
President Emmanuel Macron of France promised to expand anti-inflation measures on Wednesday and acknowledged that certain workers' demands for increased pay were fair. According to Bruegel, Paris has spent Euro 71.6 billion on measures to control price increases for fuel, gas, and electricity. Due to the measures, France's inflation rate was lower than that of the United States and most of Europe. Nevertheless, low-income families in France are feeling the effects of increased food prices. In September, the rate of inflation was 6.2 per cent, according to the French statistics agency Insee.
According to surveys, most French citizens support sanctions on Russia and the delivery of weapons to Ukraine. The public's support for these policies or the governments that support them worries Mr Macron and other European leaders.
According to a French official, nurses and other members of the public sector who are struggling with inflation could not comprehend why the government can't afford to increase their salaries when it can deliver Ukraine military hardware worth hundreds of millions of euros.
More than 100,000 people participated in protests started by refinery workers last week by taking to the streets across France. The country's refining infrastructure has been hampered by union strikes at refineries and fuel storage facilities, which have cut off supplies nationally. The government intervened, requiring certain employees to report back to work and using rarely used legal provisions to guarantee gasoline supplies.
The CFDT and CFE-CGC, two of the biggest unions in France, have agreements with TotalEnergies SE and Esso. However, the socialist CGT union closed the door on negotiations. Two refineries are still affected by the strike, and many gas stations, especially in the Paris region, are still running low on supplies.