“Our country is on the edge of the abyss,” Greek President Karolos Papoulias said overnight, as violence and anger erupted on the streets of Athens. “We are all responsible so that it does not take the step into the void.”

The deepest concern about the riots in Greece yesterday — “swarms of violent groups lashing out at the government and security forces and hurling gasoline bombs that, according to the police, set fire to a bank building and killed three workers inside,” is how The New York Times reports it — is not what happened, but what it suggests about what could happen. And not just in Greece, the birthplace of Western civilisation, but in other developed European countries, which are also perched precariously at the edge of that same abyss.

The Athenian protesters armed with gas masks, sticks and Molotov cocktails yesterday weren’t just masked anarchists; “men in polo shirts joined in too”, according to Time. And if Greek men in polo shirts are prepared to turn feral over the austerity measures needed to redress their government’s financial mismanagement, does that mean that British, Spanish,  Portuguese or even Italian men in polo shorts could also take violence to their streets?

Glenn Dyer today in the business section reports on the woes of the UK:

“If Spain or Portugal follow Greece, then the UK won’t be far behind, for all the smugness of the current government and the alternatives.

“… Where Greece goes, the UK will have to follow, cutting spending, raising taxes and inflicting financial pain on its citizens. So drop Ireland and put the UK in the list of countries waiting to crash.”

Countries that borrow too much or condone a dysfunctional tax system to prop up living standards are countries destined to face the music at some point. That point has arrived in Greece.

But the real crisis here would occur if “a small economy’s crisis turns into a major European calamity”, as foreshadowed by Janis Emmanouilidis, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels. Let’s hope the social unrest on the streets of Athens is not the precursor of a contagion that spreads to the streets of Madrid, Lisbon or Milan.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey