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    How COVID-19 is shaping the way Europeans think about politicians

    COVID-19 is an unprecedented doom loop between a severe health crisis and grave economic repercussions. Government interventions to handle the outbreak and its aftermath first stopped public life in its tracks and then entirely reshaped it. This has left us in a kind of “new normal”, in which social interactions and labour conditions will probably never be the same again.
    An experimental research study suggests that when people are thinking about the health crisis, they express less trust in politicians and political institutions such as the European Union. That’s even more the case when they are thinking about the economic ramifications of the situation we are all currently experiencing.
    This is what the findings from four online surveys conducted in Italy, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands as part of the study suggest. The surveys were conducted well into the first wave of the epidemic (May-June) and had more than 2,000 respondents per country.
    Some respondents were first asked about their experience of the COVID crisis, and then asked about their political opinions. They were asked, for example, if they knew anyone who had been diagnosed with COVID, and whether they were concerned about their health. That meant that, for this group, the health crisis was put front and centre in their minds. Their answers were then compared with respondents that were not given such “priming” questions at the beginning of the survey and were therefore not necessarily thinking about the pandemic. “Primed” respondents were 5% less likely to trust their national politicians and 12% less trustful of the European Union. When asked whether their country benefited from EU membership, they were 10% less likely to reply “yes”.
    When posed priming questions about the economic consequences of the crisis, such as on job security or future opportunities, respondents were even more disappointed in their political institutions. They were also less willing to give up personal freedom in exchange for individual and public safety.
    Similar bolts of “disillusion” have occurred before, often in the wake of natural disasters or economic shocks. Such events will always overwhelm political institutions to some degree. Clearly citizens expected their institutions to be better prepared for the shock of the pandemic, and to be quicker on the ball to manage its fallout.
    Students in Rome protest against coronavirus measures. EPA/ Angelo Carconi
    This disillusion also seems to chip away at another pillar of society, as the survey shows that support for financing the welfare state with taxes also goes down. This is true for all spending categories – poverty alleviation, health expenditure, unemployment benefits and pensions – and coincides with a higher dissatisfaction with the general tax burden.
    The return of the expert
    The news isn’t all bad though. Support for scientists and experts was 8% higher among respondents primed to think about health and economic issues first. This is especially true for the group receiving additional priming questions that cast the crisis as a conflict. When respondents were asked whether they perceive the crisis as a struggle against an invisible enemy, and whether they see national solidarity as the best way forward, support for competence and expertise rose by a whopping 28%.
    This result suggests a “rallying around the flag” effect is at play as well, to some extent mitigating the disillusion effect. Precisely because a crisis is an extraordinary event, citizens are more easily united around a common cause and are willing to put their shoulders under any kind of competent crisis response with enthusiasm.
    A new political divide?
    Surprisingly, and although we learn from the survey that faith in political institutions and the EU is wavering, “populist” attitudes have weakened as well. Support for a strong leader to deal with a crisis decreased by 5% for all primed respondents. They were also 5% less keen to let the “people” make the most important policy decisions instead of politicians. Support for populist political parties, if anything, is in retreat too.
    In line with these findings, the latest polls show that populist parties are losing ground across Europe. This suggests that we may have reached a critical juncture, with the crisis potentially pushing our societies onto a different path.
    Of course, the way in which governments manage the economic recovery and the resurgence of the virus in the months and years to come will be a crucial factor here. It will be interesting to see if the rising demand for competence that the survey uncovers, is met in the future. Or whether the “disillusion” effect of the crisis is eventually channelled in renewed, or even bolstered support for populist parties.
    In this sense, a new fault line in the political arena may be opening up, setting simple policy solutions against the complexity of nuanced, yet competent approaches. More

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    Has the coronavirus proved a crisis too far for Europe’s far-right outsiders?

    In recent years, far-right political parties in Europe have capitalised on crises to build their support bases. Many have made it to positions of power as a result of these efforts. The financial crisis of 2008, the refugee crisis that began in 2014 and the ongoing debate around climate change have all provided opportunities to harness growing uncertainty and resentment for political purposes.
    However, early signs suggest these groups have not had the same success during the coronavirus crisis. For now at least, incumbent European governments seem to be in control.
    On the internet, far-right communities have played a role in circulating conspiracy theories about COVID-19’s origins during the pandemic. They have helped spread the idea that the virus was created in a laboratory rather than coming from nature – and even that it was released intentionally – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They have blamed minorities for the spread of the disease and adopted a racist rhetoric that blames China for the pandemic.
    In turn, many far-right political parties have picked up the themes and brought them into mainstream discourse.
    Read more: Why are there so many coronavirus conspiracy theories? Listen to part six of our expert guide
    Given the massive surge of conspiracy theories that have circulated online in the past few months, there has been concern that another surge in anti-establishment xenophobic politics is on the cards for Europe. The worry has been that the far right will make gains again as a result. But, so far, it seems this crisis has not actually been particularly “profitable” for these groups. In fact, they seem to be floundering.
    In retreat
    In Germany, the far-right AfD openly embraced conspiracy theories. Its members claimed Angela Merkel’s lockdown measures were unnecessary.
    This initially gained traction among a public trying to adapt to a strange new way of life. But the AfD were quickly seen to have painted themselves into a corner when it became clear that Germany’s lockdown was producing the desired effect and infections were dropping.
    The AfD has lost a significant amount of support during the pandemic, sliding from around 15% approval in pre-coronavirus polls to something more like 9% now. This is a blow to German ultranationalists.
    Meanwhile, in Italy, Matteo Salvini, leader of the League party, has found it very hard to hold the attention of the national media – which is a new experience for him. The League’s messaging has been confusing. In late February, the party initially called for the partially locked down region of Lombardy to be re-opened but then later demanded a full lockdown. The news website Politico’s analysis of opinion polling in Italy shows that the League’s popularity is down 11% from last summer.
    The National Rally in France has also seen better days. Party leader Marine Le Pen asserted that it makes sense to ask if COVID-19 was made in a lab. A recent poll found that 40% of National Rally voters believe that the virus was intentionally designed in a laboratory. Support for Le Pen’s party appears to have flatlined during the pandemic.
    In Greece, the leader of a new far-right group called Greek Solution is under investigation by the Supreme Court for producing TV commercials advertising balms that “effectively protect people from coronavirus”. Vox in Spain has also failed to advance in polls, while mainstream parties in the country have enjoyed a significant boost.
    Members of Spain’s Vox party attend a rally during the pandemic. EPA
    Incumbents hold support
    In spite of the far right’s continuous attempts to cause further instability during the pandemic, most European countries have rallied around their governments. Even mainstream opposition parties have struggled to make an impact.
    Germans have been supportive of Merkel’s evidence based approach , while both France’s Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s Giuseppe Conte have seen their approval ratings climb.
    Greece’s success at controlling the virus so far has not gone unnoticed either. It’s hard for opposition parties of any kind to gain traction when the current government has managed to keep total infections to fewer than 4,000 by taking swift action to restrict movement.
    The predicament facing Europe’s far-right and nationalist parties represents a very interesting break with the past. In the last decade, most crises in the continent played out with a familiar winner. There was significant disunity between European leaders when it came to managing the financial crash and the refugee crisis. This fractured the European Union and opened a space for the far right.
    Drawing on old notions of identity and boosted by online conspiracy theories, far-right actors once again openly doubted European policies and attempted to take advantage of the crisis. But compared to the more scientific and realist approaches of most European governments, their response looks insufficient.
    The far right has been the significant loser of the pandemic. Not only have these groups lost credibility, but their nationalist agenda looks highly irrelevant in the era of COVID-19. Amid lockdowns and closed borders, the issue of immigration has lost its significance in 2020 and the failure to come up with viable solutions to the biggest issue of the day has hurt the popularity of far-right actors.
    However, now the focus has shifted towards the need to return to “normality” things might change. Impatience is growing among populations that have been living in lockdown for months.
    A recession looms – and it looks set to dwarf the last. That presents opportunities to governments and fringe groups alike – opportunities that the far right will be actively looking into, to further weaken liberal democracies. More

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    Is being European a white identity? Brussels needs deep reflection in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement

    Like so many organisations, the European Parliament recently declared “Black Lives Matter” in a statement that condemned racism. And, like in so many other parts of the world, people in European countries have been taking part in Black Lives Matter protests. Many have been condemning Europe’s colonial past, not least in Belgium, where the EU […] More

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    Slovakia: election sees parties changing direction to keep the far-right out of power

    At the heart of most elections is a choice between continuity and change. But in the looming parliamentary vote in Slovakia, all parties are promising to shake things up. Even the ruling party Smer (which means “direction” in Slovak) has rebranded itself as “New Smer”. Billboards featuring Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini promise a “responsible change”. […] More

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    Matteo Salvini fails to make waves in local election but Italy’s government remains on a knife edge

    A regional election in northern Italy has delivered a blow to populist right-wing figure Matteo Salvini. But while the centre-left candidate in the elections for the Emilia-Romagna region saw off the populist threat – with the help of a grassroots campaign movement called The Sardines – his party’s national government looks far from secure. Stefano […] More

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    Matteo Salvini fails to make waves in local election but Italy's government remains on a knife edge

    A regional election in northern Italy has delivered a blow to populist right-wing figure Matteo Salvini. But while the centre-left candidate in the elections for the Emilia-Romagna region saw off the populist threat – with the help of a grassroots campaign movement called The Sardines – his party’s national government looks far from secure.
    Stefano Bonaccini’s re-election as the governor of Emilia-Romagna matters because it has given hope that the erosion of the left’s traditional dominance of local politics in the four central regions once known as the red belt: Tuscany, Umbria, the Marches and Emilia-Romagna, is not unstoppable.
    Emilia-Romagna is the richest, most populous and, historically, also the most solidly left-wing area in the red belt. But the right-wing League has been growing in popularity in the area since Salvini took over the party in 2013. He saw this regional election as a golden opportunity to bring down the government – a fragile coalition between the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement M5S). The latter had been in national government with Salvini until their partnership collapsed in 2019 and many see the new arrangement as being geared more towards keeping Salvini away from power rather than providing a functioning administration.
    Salvini therefore sought to turn this regional election into a test of whether the national government enjoyed the confidence of the electorate. A right-wing victory would have set off a campaign to force the governing parties to stand down and hold a general election.
    The League has become increasingly popular in Emilia-Romagna, while the incumbent PD has been shrinking, so the vote was considered winnable by Salvini and his supporters.
    How the parties compare. Davide Pellegrino, Author provided
    Pre-election polls showed the race between Bonaccini, the PD-backed candidate for the governorship, and Lucia Borgonzoni, the League’s candidate, was in fact very tight.
    Sardines against Salvini
    Salvini ran a polarising campaign, which in turn sparked a new grassroots movement on the left called the Sardines. This group was started by ordinary citizens opposed to the radicalism of Salvini’s League.
    As a result, turnout hit 67.7% in this regional election – a significant increase on 2014, when just 37.7% of eligible voters took part. This mirrors recent events in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Spain, where the possibility of an electoral victory for a populist radical right party has increased interest in politics and boosted participation.
    How the local results break down. Davide Pellegrino, Author provided
    But Bonaccini’s success appears heavily tied to his personal appeal. He himself is considerably more popular than the coalition of parties that backed his election. Meanwhile, the PD’s ally in government, the M5S, has almost disappeared in the region. It shrank to a pitiful 4.7% of the vote, while the League won 32%, similarly to the most recent EU election. These are all bad signs for the government.
    What now for the national government?
    The very poor performance of the M5S in this election (and in the other regional election held on the same day in Calabria) is bound to cause instability for the national government. The party has never done well at local and regional levels but this result, coupled with recent turmoil at the top, will be taken by many as a sign of imminent collapse.
    The party’s leader, Luigi Di Maio, recently resigned, unable to command the support of the party as it slumped in the polls since entering government one and half years ago.
    Salvini failed to topple the governing parties in this regional vote. EPA
    Since 2018, 30 M5S parliamentarians have either been fired or have quit to join the League or other groups. More could now follow, which would be deadly for a governing coalition with a very small majority in the Senate.
    Even if no one leaves, internal tensions within the M5S may still bring the governing coalition to an end, as more and more M5S representatives judge its experience in power alongside the left as a failure. Moving to the opposition benches would at least allow the M5S to recover its long-lost “purity” as an anti-establishment party
    As for the PD, it is still in search of an identity and an electoral strategy 12 years after having been founded. In Emilia-Romagna it basically owes its victory to others (particularly the incumbent governor, Bonaccini, and his ability to attract the votes of former M5S supporters).
    While it is difficult to say when a general election will happen, it seems unlikely that the governing coalition can hold. The PD’s victory in Emilia-Romagna has bought it a little time, but we do not expect the two governing parties to stick together until the end of the legislature. More

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    Are Europe’s new leaders up to the job? Brussels appointment process raises serious legitimacy questions

    Every six years, in tandem with the European parliamentary election, the EU changes the management of its top jobs. This, in turn, affects the composition of its institutions. The five key places to be filled are the European Commission president, the European Council president, the president of the European Parliament, the head of the European […] More

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    Five things to look out for in the European elections

    Voters across Europe are about to head to the polls to elect 751 members to the European Parliament from across 28 separate member states, representing more than 512m people. The 2019 elections are a mammoth democratic exercise with profound consequences for European citizens and the global role of the EU. Here are five things to […] More