‘A story of two pandemics’: How COVID divisions could reshape European politics


COVID-19 has created potentially long-lasting geographic and generational divisions across the European Union, with people in southern and eastern countries more likely to report personal or financial distress due to the pandemic, a new one has revealed. investigation.

The survey, published Wednesday by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), finds that Europeans generally feel less free than they did two years ago and warns that this could have big implications for politics across the Old Continent.

Overall, a majority – 54% – of the 16,200 people polled by the Brussels-based think tank in 12 EU member states say they have not been affected “at all” by COVID-19 . But the country-level picture reveals what the authors described as a “tale of two pandemics.”

More than half of those polled in the six northern and western countries surveyed – Denmark, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Austria – said they had not been affected by the pandemic at all .

However, in the six countries in the south or east – Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain – the percentage saying so fell below 50%, with the majority of respondents saying they had been affected by the disease. or financially.

Two other cleavages were also identified by the survey.

Generation division

The first is a generational divide, with nearly two-thirds of respondents over 60 claiming no personal impact from COVID-19 while only 43% of those under 30 said the same.

Age also has an impact on what people think of who is to blame for the spread of the pandemic. A slim majority (51%) of people over 60 blame individuals, while young Europeans under 30 are more likely to blame governments and other institutions (49%) than individuals ( 42%).

“In some ways it’s not surprising. It is true that our aging societies organize many policies – on taxation and public spending, on the environment, on town planning laws – around the interests of the older citizens who vote rather than the younger ones who vote. will inherit the earth, ”the report notes.

“However, the cost allocation of COVID-19 is in some ways even more blunt and immediate. There is a widespread feeling in many societies that the future of young people has been sacrificed for the sake of their parents and children. their grandparents.

This sentiment echoes that felt by previous generations of young people who have gone through other seismic changes such as world wars and revolutions. It seems hard to think that we will not see the consequences as the divide will become more obvious, ”he adds.

Liberty Division

The third major divide revealed by the study concerns the idea of ​​freedom.

Only 22% of those polled said they felt free, up from 64% before the pandemic. The percentage of people who say they do not feel free has jumped to 27% from 7% two years ago.

Only one in ten Germans now say they feel free when they were 68% to say so in 2019. This despite the fact that Germany has avoided the stricter blockages observed in other countries such as France, Italy and Spain.

But the loss of freedom is particularly felt in Austria and the Netherlands, where the share of people feeling free has fallen by more than 60 percentage points over the past two years to stand at 15% and 19% respectively.

Meanwhile, the largest share of people who currently feel free are in Hungary (41%) and Spain (38%). However, only 48% of Spaniards felt free two years ago, compared to 68% in Hungary.

This particular step is important, says the report, “because the crisis seems to have brought about a big change in the way political parties relate to freedom: many traditional parties have actively returned to government action, while many populist parties are becoming more and more libertarian. “

How COVID is reshaping European politics

The ECFR indicates that the way in which different perceptions of freedom influence politics can be particularly observed in Poland, France and Germany.

In Poland, he says, the pandemic has deepened divisions between pre-existing ideological groups. “Because most of the population is very suspicious of the government, they attribute nefarious motives to the COVID-19 restrictions and see the government’s action as a great threat to freedom,” he said. .

Poland has the highest proportion of people who believe the government is using restrictions linked to the pandemic to create the illusion of control or as an excuse to control the public.

“As a result, most Poles believe that the biggest threat to their freedom comes from above – they blame their government and other big institutions for the impact of the pandemic on their lives,” he adds. .

In Germany, long ruled by a “consensus democracy” led by various coalition governments, there has been no strong public opposition to restrictions or mistrust of the motives for implementing them.

But the strong change in people saying they feel free “hides very high levels of discontent,” reports ECFR.

Across the border, the pandemic has brought about “striking changes in political philosophy” in some of France’s most important parties. Supporters of President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party, the liberal La République en Marche, for example, are now more likely to support very interventionist state action. But many supporters of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally who has often called for a stronger state, “now want their party to pose as a platform of freedom against the repressive power of the Pandemic state “.

Mark Leonard, founding director of ECFR and one of the co-authors of the investigation, warned in a statement that the “deep rifts” that have arisen because of COVID-19 “could be as serious as those of the euro and refugee crisis. “

“This creates a fragile climate in many parts of Europe and, for national governments and the EU, could present a problem, as they seek to restore individual freedoms and roll out their COVID stimulus plans,” said he declared.

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