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As Greece awaits bailout, southern Europe seethes

European governments are expected to sign off on a second bailout for Greece today. But conditions set on rescue money have fueled populist unrest in southern Europe.

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Rather, the current period is witnessing the disappearance of the narratives of the past decades. Talk of shared values is giving way to talk of national interests and competition. The grand narratives that brought solidarity – the cold war, the "End of History," the "Clash of Civilizations," the "Return of History" – are over. The lack of a shared project at a time of austerity is causing fragmentation, the rise of populist sentiments, and the sapping of trust.

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The Italian social thinker Raffaele Simone argues in a recent work, "The Sweet Monster," that Europe is preoccupied with the surface attractions of celebrity culture and new technology, and it merely seeks to sustain its comfort levels. Such a condition, in which older narratives of justice and human rights are ignored, is a seedbed for extremism and anger he says, whether against immigrants or elites.

London-based Adam Posen of the Peter­son Institute for International Economics argued at Chatham House last month that Western economies were not on the brink, comparing them to a post-Gilded Age period of the late 20th century, what he calls "the Old Normal," and thinks a "backlash" against inequity is still a decade away.

Still, he was concerned about the speed of global changes and said the prescription of austerity may have unintended consequences. Speaking of the Irish bailout last year and Monti's warning to Ms. Merkel, Mr. Posen said, "It is mind-boggling to watch the Irish be asked to eat their children, as Jonathan Swift suggested.... It is entirely right and justified for my friend Mario Monti to stand up and say, 'If we're going to do this much austerity, you better ... give us something or there is going to be a horrible backlash.'"

It 'boils down to trust'

The issue boils down to trust, says Felix Roth of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. Trust is often indefinable, but crucial for democracy, and without it, he says, "What we worry about is that people will find their own solutions via populist leaders and say we don't [care] anymore."

Mr. Roth has worked out measurable "trust" quotients for Europe. In 2010, less than one-quarter of the populations of Spain, Ireland, and Greece trusted their parliaments, and "approximately 70 percent do not trust it anymore," he wrote in "The Eurozone Crisis and Its Effects on Citizens' Trust in National Parliaments."

Spain went from a "plus 23" trust quotient in 2008 on Roth's scale to "minus 50" in the past year. Italy's levels of trust in its institutions today is at a "minus 70," which he calls "serious."

"The opposition of citizens is growing far too strong, and we aren't talking about the Assad regime and Syria," Roth told the Monitor. "These are European states. Austerity has limits, but I'm not sure economists have put this in their models.

"To get reforms to work you need trust, which isn't there," he says. "So they won't get implemented, and that's what you have been seeing in Greece."

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