The virus in European politics

Published in Newsroom.co.nz (Wellington), 7 September 2021

Is there anything about this worldwide pandemic that we have not talked about sufficiently after one and a half years? Countless articles, essays, and speeches have shed light on nearly every aspect of the situation.

The European Council on Foreign Relations has just released a new report that is different. It asks what impact Covid-19 will have on European politics in the long run. It does so by surveying representative population samples from 12 European countries.

The resulting document is called Europe’s Invisible Divides: How Covid-19 is Polarising European Politics. Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard, the report’s co-authors, uncover the new fault lines the pandemic has created.

The paper shows that, although being a worldwide phenomenon, Covid-19 has differed significantly from place to place. When reading it from a New Zealand viewpoint, we should bear this finding in mind.

With our elimination approach, New Zealand has taken a markedly different course from that of European countries. Most European countries had more cases and deaths than us, but they also had lengthier periods of social restrictions. That said, international borders remained (relatively) open in Europe during most of the crisis.

So, what was Covid-19 like for Europeans? And what are the political implications of this experience?

A first finding could be rather surprising. Given the scope of the problem, who would have guessed that most Europeans (54 percent) say Covid-19 had little effect on them?

Only 30 percent of respondents said illness had a direct or indirect influence on them, such as the death of a friend or relative or indeed personal illness. Another 16 percent said they only felt the pandemic because of its economic consequences.

These figures, however, should be viewed with caution. It is not as though Europeans were unaware that an epidemic was underway. It was just that they were not sick, did not have any Covid-19 instances in their circles, and did not become any worse off financially.

That last point is important because it also explains some massive differences in the lived experience of the pandemic across the continent. Where governments were strong enough to cushion the economic blow, large majorities said the pandemic had not affected them. In Denmark and Germany, for example, 72 percent and 65 percent of respondents said so.

Where the government was less able to provide support, the outcome was far less favourable. In Spain and Hungary, a little more than a third of respondents (36 percent and 35 percent) said the pandemic did not harm them at all.

This European division, according to Krastev and Leonard, is reminiscent of the Euro crisis. Once again, there is a rift between richer and poorer EU countries. “As Europe starts to deal with the long-term consequences of the pandemic, these divisions in experience will transform from a silent divide into a major schism,” they warn.

The next major finding is perhaps a little less surprising, even though it contradicts one of the pandemic’s primary storylines.

We know how much worse Covid-19’s health repercussions are for the elderly. In their later decades of life, people are at a far higher risk of major diseases and mortality than younger and middle-aged adults, let alone children.

Despite this, the study finds that a vast majority (65 percent) of the generation aged 60+ believes Covid-19 has passed them by. Meanwhile, most young people (57 percent) under the age of 30, say the pandemic has affected them.

Then again, is this outcome any surprise? If you are retired, do not have to work from home, and do not have to care for children, you may sit out the crisis. You also lower your chances of catching the infection this way.

The younger generation does not have these options. They face economic hardship, juggling children in their home offices, and are more likely to get ill because of greater social connectivity. No wonder the containment of Covid-19 has been tough on young people.

Perhaps because of these generational pressures, the young are more critical about governments’ handling of the pandemic. Among those under 30, 23 percent believe their governments are merely trying to appear in charge, while 20 percent believe governments exploit the pandemic to further control the populace. Both numbers are substantially lower among those over 60.

The second new political fault line: the young believe the crisis has hit them the worst, and they do not trust official explanations. “The fact that covid-19 has additionally eroded young Europeans’ trust in the political system could have long-term consequences for the future of democracy,” Krastev and Leonard warn.

Public confidence in government crisis management is unevenly distributed across Europe. However, if there is one survey result that should have been expected, it is this one: Traditional high-trust countries like Denmark (77%), Sweden (76%), and the Netherlands (75%) are at the top of the list of countries where the government’s role in the crisis is perceived overwhelmingly positively. Meanwhile, faith in the government’s pandemic response is low in France (56%), Bulgaria (50%), and Poland (38%).

Even though many Europeans claim the virus has had no personal impact on them because of disease or economic consequences, it has had a significant impact in one area. That area is the personal perception of freedom, and here the pandemic’s outcomes are dramatic.

Across the 12 countries surveyed, only a little more than a fifth of respondents (22%) said they felt free. The least perception of freedom was detected in Austria (15%) and Germany (11%).

Given that nearly two-thirds of Germans and half of Austrians thought the pandemic did not affect them, these results are astounding. It did – but primarily by restricting their movements and liberties.

People were also asked to report how views on their freedom had changed between 2019 and now. The declines were substantial in all countries, but especially for those who formerly considered themselves free.

For example, in the Netherlands, the percentage of people who feel free has decreased from 79 percent in 2019 to just 19 percent now.

What emerges is yet another seismic shift brought about by the virus. People have witnessed their freedoms disappear. And, as a result, many people, particularly the younger generation, have lost faith in the government.

These issues, when considered together, pose a serious threat to European democracy. It is no longer merely a matter of economic recovery that must be accomplished. Regaining the trust of the youth in democratic institutions will be equally crucial. The European Union’s institutions will also face a continuing challenge in bridging Europe’s regional divides.

“While the early stages of the crisis saw many citizens rally behind their national governments and EU member states move towards more cooperation, the next stage of the crisis could lead to more political divisions both within states and between them,” the study’s authors conclude.

It is a conclusion that might similarly apply to us here in New Zealand.

It was easy to unite behind a government saving lives in a team of five million. But just as we are trying to move out of this stage of pandemic management, we will find out whether the virus has really made us come together.

Or whether its long-term effect will be social division and political polarisation.

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