The European reaction to the UK’s riots


Britain EuropeBy Jon Worth / @jonworth

A moralising article from Tony Blair is enough to make anyone choke over their Sunday morning cornflakes, and his opinion piece in today’s Observer is no exception. It’s here if you feel like a browse.

One line from Blair’s piece, even quoted in the front page article about it, struck me though:

“Focus on the specific problem and we can begin on a proper solution. Elevate this into a high- faluting wail about a Britain that has lost its way morally and we will depress ourselves unnecessarily, trash our own reputation abroad [my emphasis] and, worst of all, miss the chance to deal with the problem in the only way that will work”.

There is, as Blair rightly understands, an international aspect to all of this – how other nations view the UK – but after keeping an eye on European newspapers over the last couple of weeks I’m convinced it is not the same concern as we have often heard.

With just a year to go until the Olympic Games in London, business and political leaders were fast to criticise the damage to London’s business reputation internationally, and openly wondered whether the Olympic games will pass off safely.

This reaction is understandable, but it is also superficial. With enough police on the streets the riots stopped, and I do not think there is real concern – in the UK or elsewhere – that riots pose a security danger to the games.

It is also the case that, for Europeans at least, riots are rather normal. Riots hit the St Josse quarter of Brussels in 2007 while I was living there, civil unrest in Paris is well known and violence has been brewing in recent months in Madrid and Athens.

The European critique of events in London and across the UK has been rather different, more a question of why these riots?

As the Czech centre-right newspaper Lidové noviny put it:

“The masked rioters are not fighting for their rights or against the government cuts […] They only want one thing: to watch Premier League football on a big flat screen.”

I don’t think it is that simple, but this quote covers the essence of the questions I have been posed by friends from all over Europe about the events unfolding in London. Why were people looting these sorts of things? Why not attack Harrods or Oxford Street? Why were these protests not directed at the government?

The press in other European countries has not been scared to look for explanations. Liberal German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung was happy to write that Cameron defends only the rich and that “social exclusion has been raised to the status of principle”, and they have followed up with an excellent dossier of coverage (in German). Austrian paper Kurier wrote that harsh policies are only going to deepen social exclusion, while Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter argued:

“Economic insecurity creates social disorder. For the UK, as for other countries, growth is a pre-requisite for development […] The problems will hardly get better if the British welfare state continues to hinder the rise of the socially weak.”

Lastly when it comes to David Cameron’s comments about control of social networks and Blackberry Messenger during times of unrest, the most striking critique came in 140 characters on Twitter from Sweden’s centre-right Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (who does write tweets himself):

“Well, I fear David Cameron got it somewhat wrong on netfreedom. Applause from Beijing is hardly flattering.”

In short the damage to the UK’s reputation is not because of riots per se, not about the city’s ability to run an Olympic Games, nor its ability to act as a centre for business. The critique instead is that the UK is a country with a socially excluded under-class that politicians have failed to help, where looting for a flat screen television is the pinnacle of rebellion, and where the Prime Minister’s comments about social media have gained praise from China. That is not the sort of international reputation the country should look to foster.

Credits: translations of newspaper clips from

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