Throughout history, protests have been the driving force behind some of the most powerful social movements, exposing injustices and abuse, demanding accountability and inspiring people to shape the future. Citizens around the world have barged into the streets advocating for better governance and taking a stance against corruption, racism, among other topics that resonate with the social climate of each era. Europe is no stranger to such fervor and has witnessed a force of unrest within its borders for years, where demonstrations are a common sight on the streets of the ‘old continent’.
People have taken to the boulevards to vocalize their apprehensions and demand change. The catalysts behind these profound uprisings are diverse, including fiscal austerity and burgeoning prices, as well as political issues such as systemic corruption and governmental policies.
In recent years, research on political participation in democratic societies has been indicating the existence of changing trends in attitudes and political behaviors among citizens. Declining party affiliation, electoral dealignment, and the expansion of the repertoire of political participation (towards extrainstitutional forms) are some of its empirical manifestations. Among the explanations attempting to account for these trends, there are references to a broader process of social and cultural change associated with modernization, which is affecting how citizens perceive politics and engage in the public sphere. In this sense, some authors point to a process of individualization of politics, which, on the one hand, is fostering the expansion of more critical and politically sophisticated citizen sectors and, on the other hand, is favoring political mobilization processes through informal social networks or loosely organized structures (subject to change over time), to the detriment of strong or stable identifications with organized groups such as parties, unions, and formal voluntary associations.
Political issues have played a major role in protests since the beginning of the concept. Corruption and strict government policies have been creating for years a sense of resentment and unease among the citizens of many European countries, forcing them to take to the streets and demand sincere transparency and accountability from their political leaders. Additionally, economic issues have emerged as one of the most prominent drivers of protests in Europe, caused by the implementation of austerity measures and the relentless surge in prices.
In order to understand more comprehensively protests in Europe as a form of a public expression of dissent towards an idea or action, we chose to study protests in European countries in the span of 16 years, from the 2000 until 2015. In that sense, the unit of observation for our article are protest events, defined within the specific time frame we established. We aim to highlight the correlations between the events that lead to protests and the level of freedom. We shall also take a look at the most common reasons for protesting. We will be analyzing protest data from the Observatory for Political Conflict and Democracy in Europe and Freedom House.
Protesting embodies the belief that freedom is not a given, requiring active participation and the ability to challenge the existing norms, policies and even systems. It’s an expression of freedom, which enables people to voice their concerns and dissent, advocating for change. The ability to protest safely is a crucial instrument of democracy, serving as a catalyst for progress. Marginalized voices need to be able to speak truth to power and be heard, but the reality of protesting puts them in an even more vulnerable position.
According to our data, Luxembourg has the lowest rate of protests across all European countries, at just 30, in the span of 16 years and Greece claims the highest rate reaching 3,653. We should keep in mind the sizes of each country, but it is, also, interesting to see that Luxembourg, as reported by OECD Better Life Index, has 8.4 points in the ‘satisfaction of life’ scale and ‘income’ at 9.3. On the contrary, Greece scores 3.1 points at life satisfaction and 1.8 points regarding income. Below, we can also see the total number of protests happening each year in Europe.
According to Kriesi, Lorenzini et al. (2020) in their book Contention in times of crisis: Recession and political protest in thirty European countries they break down the time frame between 2000 and 2015 in 4 sub-periods, in order to examine the data in more specific time frames. They propose: a) the ‘pre-crisis period’ running from January 2001 to September 2008, b) the ‘shock period’ covering the initial period after the collapse of Lehman Brothers from October 2008 up to and including January 2010, c) the ‘Euro-crisis period’ lasting from February 2010 up to and including July 2015 (the Greek referendum on the third bailout) and, finally, d) the ‘refugee crisis’ with a starting point of 2015. Following their method, we shall keep these times frames in mind when examining the protest data.
An interesting insight we can see in the graph above is that the amount of protests does not correlate to the adherence of the population. For example, 2003 it may not have been the year with the most protests, but it has been the year with the highest attendance of people raising their voices. The year 2003 is categorized as “normal times” or ‘pre-crisis period’, but in that year there are more protests than in 2010, the year of “euro crisis”. If we ask why, the answer is illuminating: In 2003, against the invasion of Iraq, hundreds of cities around the world organized protests that had a large mobilizing mass.
The number of protests in Iceland grew significantly in 2015, which, in proportion to the number of its population, (about 300,000) changes significantly its proportion. Upon further investigation we found that the type of action that increased the number of protests in Iceland by 700,000 was petitions. On June 29, 2015, the whaling season began and at the same time a petition signed by 700,000 people was launched against whaling. It’s important to point out that on June 20, 2023, the Government temporarily interrupted whaling.
The graph presented showcases the diverse causes that have instigated protests in various countries, giving us some insight into the multifaceted nature of societal grievances. Each data point represents a distinct social tapestry of concerns. By examining the distribution of causes across different countries, and how they change through time, we gain insights into the shared challenges faced by societies globally, as well as the unique circumstances that fuel local protests. The graph provides a valuable lens through which we can explore the intricate dimensions of activism, bringing light to the diverse range of issues that drive people to stand up and demand meaningful change.
This study of protests in Europe between 2000 and 2015 reveals compelling insights into the common trends of people’s grievances and mobilization. Analyzing the data allows us to identify overarching themes and patterns that transcend national borders, shedding light on shared concerns such as economic inequality, globalization, social justice, and opposition to war. However, it is equally crucial to recognize and account for the unique conditions and contextual factors within each country and territory. Localized socio-economic, political, and cultural dynamics influence the specific causes and manifestations of protests, making a nuanced understanding of the particularities of each region essential.
Protests take a multitude of shapes, being driven by creativity and a sense of shared humanity. They can be online and offline, take the form of strikes, marches, vigils, sit-ins and acts of civil disobedience. At their core, they encapsulate the notion that freedom cannot be taken for granted; it necessitates individuals’ active engagement and their capacity to question and reinvent our society. Each person has a unique role to play, and there is a place for everyone to contribute to the causes they believe in. Whether through active participation on the ground, amplifying voices on social media, supporting grassroots movements, or engaging in peaceful acts of resistance, individuals can make a meaningful impact and shape the trajectory of societal change. The power lies in recognizing one’s agency and joining the collective journey toward a more just and equitable world.
Created by Aliki Vasileiou, Andrés González, Isabella Moura, Mafalda Paço, Thijmen Verstraete
– Crisis situations and unrest in Europe since 2000 – Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crisis_situations_and_unrest_in_Europe_since_2000
– Global Protest Tracker – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: https://carnegieendowment.org/publications/interactive/protest-tracker
– Europe’s day of anti-austerity strikes and protests turn violent – as it happened – The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2012/nov/14/eurozone-crisis-general-strikes-protest-day-of-action
– Freedom Europe data: https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world
– Protests in Europe data: https://poldem.eui.eu/codebooks/protest-events/
– Kriesi, H., Lorenzini, J., Wüest, B., & Hausermann, S. (Eds.). (2020). Contention in times of crisis: Recession and political protest in thirty European countries. Cambridge University Press.
– Protect the protest Amnesty Campaign: https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/freedom-of-expression/protest/
-European Trade Union Institute Strike Map: https://www.etui.org/strikes-map
The right to strike in essential services: economic implications: https://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/X2H-Xref-ViewHTML.asp?FileID=10894&lang=EN
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