Demonstrations in Europe: Protests and the Populist Narrative

This is the final blog post in a series on protests in key regions of the world and their potential impact on companies and executives. The series focuses on protest likelihood as well as takeaways for short-term travel risk, long-term corporate planning, and everything in between.

Seeing the Trees Through the Forest

This may come as a shock for readers outside of the security and intelligence industry, but it does not take advanced degrees or operational experience abroad to deduce that terrorism risk in Syria is high or that care must be taken to watch your belongings during travel to a major urban center. Most client-oriented security and intelligence products derive their usefulness from a much greater level of depth. The devil is in the details, as they say.

When it comes to protests, many of the broad trends highlighted in our Latin America and MENAregion blog posts also require careful monitoring in relation to specific client needs. Without the deeper dive, these trends are at risk of being cliché narratives, useful for general guidance, but not something a client should ever pay for. One of the most prevalent stories today is that Europe is once again a risky place to do business due to the threat of populism. This story isn’t false, per se, but as with other evaluations of protest risk, companies need to look beyond the headlines to understand how their assets and personnel may be affected by protests.

How did the Populist Europe Narrative Come About?

The populist Europe story, and with it the risk of populist demonstrations, is rooted in very real and worrying developments on the political and economic fronts. Prior to the 2009 financial crisis, few risk consultancies had covered European politics or security in much depth. Following the crash, economic instability and social unrest—especially in the European Union (EU) periphery countries such as Greece—created conditions ripe for protest activity. Adding fire to the flame, EU institutions responded by imposing financial straightjackets and, on the security front, populism was encouraged further in recent years by a dramatic influx of refugees and several high-profile terrorist incidents. The June 2016 “Brexit” referendum has convinced deniers and entrenched the narrative further. As of 2017, it remains the biggest European story as far as annual risk roundups by consulting firms are concerned.

Protests and Populist Europe

The direct implications of the populist Europe narrative for protest risk analysis are straightforward. The Europe of 2017 and 2018 will see a rise in demonstrations featuring right-wing or far right parties and groups. Protests will also offer a platform for organizations and individuals concerned with immigration, EU overreach and integration, and globalization.

These predictions are a good starting point, but client-oriented security analysis needs to consider the details. A few tips:

  • Look at the data – is Europe really so populist and getting to be more so? Not according to the Bertelsmann Foundation, a reputable German nonprofit that conducts regular opinion surveys. It’s latest findings highlight the fact that support for EU membership across the EU-28 is above 70%, having risen since the Brexit vote. Pro-EU protests may be just as likely to be part of the future European protest landscape as anti-EU protests
  • Look at secondary effects – in countries where populist and nationalist leadership has taken hold, the reaction to such regimes has also been a cause for demonstrations. In the last few months alone, thousands of anti-corruption protestors have taken to the streets in Romania and Russia, and in Hungary demonstrators recently gathered to prevent the potential closure of Central European University and the illiberal regime of Prime Minister Viktor Orban
  • Look at the recency bias – it is most important to remember that, as humans, we are hardwired to follow shortcuts in our analysis. In our minds, what came before should come after –that’s recency bias. Prior to the Brexit referendum, most analysts saw populism as a temporary blip and now the same analysts find it hard to look ahead. It is when a story reaches consensus levels that it is most critical to look past it altogether

Beyond the Consensus Narrative

To understand how much of a force populism is set to be in the coming year, there are plenty of indicators to look at. Among the most important will be the results of France’s presidential and legislative elections, as well as the German federal elections scheduled for September.

But how should organizations try to anticipate protest causes that fall outside of the populist story, emerging trends that are not yet identified as trends by every newspaper and annual report? One technique is horizon scanning, a systematic exploration of early signs for a potential threat. In practice, this approach may involve meticulously recording seemingly innocuous events (or even rumors), reviewing the collected material at pre-established intervals, and connecting the dots no-one has connected before. Although a news organization might find such tenuous links insufficient, the intelligence analyst will be able to provide his or her organization with warning of emerging risks far in advance.

There are other techniques as well. Companies engaging in contingency planning can literally write their own storylines for how events would unfold in the event of a country-based or regional security crisis. While this “fictional” approach may seem divorced from reality, it is worth noting that some well-known speculative fiction writers (think: Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson) have been among the most successful prophets of emerging risks. Security personnel can also work backwards. Instead of focusing on the story at hand, they can imagine a disastrous outcome for their firm and try to piece together how such an outcome could come about.

The preceding blog series was meant to provide insight on demonstrations and protests in key regions. More importantly, it has highlighted the significance of methodology. Even as the trends described fade, understanding the underlying fundamentals and exploring new analytic techniques will help companies assess the risk of protests at a global level.

Daniil Davydoff is Manager of Global Security Intelligence for AT-RISK International. In this role, he directs delivery of all intelligence-related analysis and consulting for the company’s service lines. Mr. Davydoff also has significant experience with helping clients incorporate political and security risk into corporate planning processes, as well as global expansion, risk management, and government relations strategies.

About Daniil Davydoff

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