Covid; petrol, polls and angry youth

‘Plant a tree in ‘73, or there’ll be no more in ‘74.’
I vaguely remember this slogan from my childhood and now, as the environment and tree-planting top the UK agenda once again, people are fighting at the petrol pumps and the UK is concerned about where its winter electricity will come from, it looks like we are heading into the crap 70s again, complete with strikes, blackouts and food shortages.

Compared to a year ago, covid seems to have shifted into the background; cricket balls are no longer vectors of disease, the pubs are open again and, although the pavement swerve is still a thing, you won’t get attacked for not wearing a mask in the supermarket.

But the pandemic has been experienced differently in different countries, and Europe has been split, with the south and east affected worse than the north and west.

Some people were directly affected by illness, some only experienced economic consequences, while others feel untouched by covid-19. The economic victims are more likely than others to say that restrictions have been too severe, and they tend to be more sceptical about their governments’ intentions behind lockdowns.

Europeans are divided over what they believe to be governments’ motivations behind restrictions: the Trustful have faith in governments; the Suspicious believe rulers want to cover up failings; the Accusers think governments are trying to increase their control over people.

Splits are appearing between those who believe that, in the context of the pandemic, the biggest threat to their freedom comes from governments, on the one hand, and those who fear the behaviour of their fellow citizens, on the other.

There is a major generational divide, with the young more likely than the old to blame governments for the ongoing impact; the young also feel more badly affected.

The European Council on Foreign Relations’ newest poll of citizens’ views in the time of the virus reveals that most people who live in the north and west of Europe feel unaffected by covid-19 in a direct sense; for many of them, the virus has been more of a spectator sport than a shattering lived experience. But, in eastern and southern Europe, most people say they have been directly affected by bereavement, serious illness, or economic distress.

These divisions are only now beginning to surface and they will soon start to shape many citizens’ attitudes to politics, the role of the state, the idea of freedom, and the wider contours of European politics. Beneath this continental divide, there is also a series of new divisions emerging within our societies: between young and old; between people who report that they have been economically affected and those who see covid-19 mainly as a public health crisis; and between those who see the state as a protector and those who see it as an oppressor.

In its early stages, the pandemic seemed to bring Europeans together. It started as a nationalist moment when EU governments closed their borders overnight – but it quickly evolved into a European moment when EU member states agreed to buy vaccines collectively, culminating in the Next Generation EU recovery plan.

However, as time has gone on, it is becoming increasingly clear that the lived experience of the pandemic is very different in different parts of the European Union. ECFR’s poll sought to map the diverse ways that Europeans have been affected by the crisis.

The poll exposes a big divide between the east and the south, on the one hand, and the north and the west, on the other. Overall, 54% of respondents report they have not been personally affected by covid-19 – but this group is not distributed evenly between countries. In Sweden, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Austria, and Germany, the majority of respondents say that they – or their close family and friends – have not been personally impacted by either serious disease, bereavement, or economic hardship. However, most respondents in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Spain, and Portugal have been personally affected by the crisis.

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. This could have profound implications for some of Europe’s biggest projects: the idea of freedom of movement, the future of the EU recovery plan, and Europe’s relations with the rest of the world as conducted through vaccine diplomacy, overseas aid, and more.

Of all the divides exposed by ECFR’s poll, the most glaring – both within European societies and across Europe – is generational. Almost two-thirds of respondents over the age of 60 do not feel that they have been personally affected by the coronavirus crisis but, among respondents aged under 30, only 43% feel unaffected. France and Denmark are the only countries polled where a majority of those under 30 say they have not been impacted by the crisis. The outliers among the over-60s are Spain, Portugal, Hungary, and Poland, where majorities of this group feel impacted by the crisis.

The first thing we learnt about covid-19 when it erupted, was that it would harm the oldest in our society. But the answers in ECFR’s poll reveal young people feel they have been the major victims of the pandemic. In the case of older Europeans, although the virus was seen as a threat to their lives, a majority claim not to have been directly affected. In the case of the young, the pandemic was a threat to their way of life. And most say they have suffered.

In some ways, this is not surprising. It is true that our ageing societies arrange many policies – on tax and public spending, on the environment, on planning laws – around the interests of the older citizens who vote rather than the younger ones who will inherit the earth. However, the division of the costs of covid-19 is, in some ways, even starker and more immediate. There is a widespread sense in many societies that the futures of the young have been sacrificed for the sake of their parents and their grandparents.

One of the clearest consequences so far is a surge in cynicism among young people about governments’ intentions. For example, the poll shows that younger people are less likely to believe that the main motivation of governments in introducing pandemic-related restrictions is to limit the spread of the virus. Among respondents aged under 30, as many as 43% are sceptical of their governments’ motives: 23% think that their government mainly wishes to create the appearance of control, while a further 20% say that governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to increase their control of the public. Both figures are much lower among respondents over the age of 60.

The fact that the pandemic has eroded young Europeans’ trust in the political system could have long-term consequences for the future of democracy. Research by the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge University shows that – even before the crisis – today’s young people are the generation most dissatisfied with the performance of democratic governments. Members of this generation are more sceptical of the merits of democracy compared not only with the older generation, but also with young people polled in earlier eras.

The second division that ECFR’s poll identified is between those who experienced the pandemic mostly as a public health crisis and those who experienced it only as an economic disaster. The economic victims of the pandemic tend to be particularly sceptical about their governments’ intentions behind lockdowns, and are most likely to accuse them of using covid-19 as an excuse to control the public, compared to those who were either affected by the illness or not affected by it at all. They are also more likely than others to say that covid-19 restrictions have been too strict.

The survey explored public beliefs about the main motivations for government restrictions and identified three main groups. The first group – the Trustful – think that the main motivation was public safety and stopping the spread of the virus. A second group – the Suspicious – think that the biggest motivation was to cover up the impotence and incompetence of the government with a simulacrum of action. And the third group – the Accusers – blame governments for using covid-19 as cover to increase their control over people’s lives.

Across Europe, 64% are Trustful, 19% are Suspicious, and 17% are Accusers. But the Trustful are a much smaller group in Poland (38%), Bulgaria (50%), and France (56%) than in the rest of Europe. Accordingly, these countries have larger numbers of Suspicious citizens: in Poland, it is 34%; in Bulgaria, it is 24%. Even in Germany and France, 21% and 20% respectively think along these lines. Bulgaria, Poland, and France are also the countries with the largest number of Accusers – comprising around one-quarter of those surveyed.

The survey also sought to examine whether respondents felt that the restrictions in their country were too strict, about right, or not strict enough. There were fairly big differences between member states. In Hungary, Denmark, Bulgaria, and Portugal, a majority of those who have been impacted by the illness feel that the restrictions imposed by their governments were about right. In the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and Austria, pluralities of respondents agree. On the other hand, in Sweden, a majority – and, in France, a plurality – believe that the restrictions were not tough enough. In Poland, in contrast, a plurality believe that the restrictions were too severe.

The third big divide revealed by the study concerns the idea of freedom. The survey asked how free citizens feel in the covid-19 era, and how this compares to their lives before the pandemic. This may matter because the crisis appears to have led to a big shift in the way that political parties relate to freedom: many mainstream parties have been busily re-embracing government action, while many populist parties are becoming more libertarian.

Across Europe, 22% of respondents say they still feel free in their everyday life now compared to 64% who say they felt free two years ago, before the pandemic struck. Accordingly, the share of people who do not feel free now is 27%, compared to seven per cent who did not feel free two years ago. The biggest share of people who currently feel free can be found in Hungary (41%) and Spain (38%). Interestingly, by far the largest share of people who do not feel free are in Germany (49%) and Austria (42%) – which did not have a complete lockdown in the way that many other countries did.

The survey also explored who respondents blame for the ongoing impact of the crisis and, therefore, for limitations to their freedom. It shows that their perceptions of the culprits are very diffuse. Still, two broad groups emerge.

One group – 43% of those with a clear view – appear to think that the threat to freedom comes mostly from governments and institutions. Members of this group blame China, the response of their national government, the European Commission, multinational companies, vaccine nationalism, or other countries.

Another group appears to think that the threat to freedom comes from members of society, such as individuals who are not following the rules, people returning from travels, and foreign citizens. This group makes up 48% of those with a clear view across Europe. Its members seem to follow the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in believing that “hell is other people”.

Majorities of those with a clear view in Poland (65%), France (59), Spain (59%), and Hungary (52%) belong to the first group. Meanwhile, majorities who believe that threats come from other people can be found in the Netherlands (67%), Austria (62%), Portugal (61%), Denmark (61%), Sweden (60%), Germany (60%), and Bulgaria (55%). Italy is divided on this issue (50%).

There is also a generational split across the two groups. Older Europeans are more likely to blame individuals, rather than institutions and governments. Younger Europeans are more likely to blame governments and other institutions, rather than individuals.

The split between these groups is leading to a new set of political divisions around the idea of freedom. Across Europe, supporters of many mainstream parties appear to believe that other people are chiefly to blame for the impact of the coronavirus on their country. Examples of this include supporters of the governing Austrian People’s Party, En Marche! in France, the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) in Germany, and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy in the Netherlands, which is the largest member of the governing coalition.

These attitudes likely underpinned actions by these parties to introduce a whole series of restrictions on personal behaviour to stop the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, supporters of many right-wing populist parties seem to think that the biggest threats to freedom through pandemic-related restrictions now come from governments or institutions. These parties are making a strong effort to portray mainstream parties as new authoritarians. They are now posing as libertarians rather than would-be autocrats. For example, supporters of Vox in Spain, the League in Italy, the Freedom Party in Austria, the Sweden Democrats, and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands are more likely to blame the impact of the crisis on the government or institutions than on individuals.

The political divisions emerging around different perceptions of freedom are playing out in different ways within European countries. ECFR’s survey suggests that Poland, Germany, and France could be archetypes for new kinds of post-pandemic politics – each of them representing some of the dynamics that can be seen in other European countries.

In Poland, the pandemic is playing out in a “polarised democracy”. Here, the crisis has reinforced divisions between pre-existing ideological groups within society. Because most of the population is very distrustful of the government, they attribute nefarious motives to covid-19 restrictions and see government action as a big threat to freedom. Poland is home to the largest share of people who think that the government is using pandemic-related restrictions to create the illusion of control or as an excuse to control the public. As a consequence, most Poles think that the biggest threat to their freedom comes from the top – they blame their government and other major institutions for the pandemic’s impact on their lives.

In Germany, the political system has long been categorised as a “consensus democracy” rather than one that is polarised between parties. ECFR’s data indicate that there is no strong public opposition to the level of restrictions or the motivations for introducing them. However, this superficial consensus hides very high levels of discontent. Germany is the country where the biggest share of the population feels unfree (49%) – which is a significant change compared to how respondents say they felt two years ago, with only nine per cent saying they did not feel free then. Even among the supporters of parties in the coalition government feel unfree – 42% (CDU/CSU) and 43% (Social Democrats) – while 71% of Alternative for Germany voters feel unfree.

In France, the pandemic has led to striking changes of political philosophy in the main governing and opposition parties. This is the “nonbinary democracy”. The crisis has driven the liberal supporters of Emmanuel Macron’s centrist political platform to support highly interventionist state action, with 89% of those who expressed an opinion believing that the restrictions were either right or not strict enough. Meanwhile, among the current supporters of Marine Le Pen, whose party has often sought a more authoritarian state, almost one-third (33%) of those who expressed their opinion think that the restrictions were too strict and hence want their party to pose as a tribune of freedom against the repressive power of the pandemic state. While 84% of Macron supporters believe that the main motivation behind the restrictions is to limit the spread of the virus, only 41% of Le Pen supporters agree. Instead, 37% of Le Pen supporters think that the main motive for the restrictions is to control the public; only 1 in 20 supporters of Macron share that opinion.

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 various ways in which people have been affected by the pandemic have created different perspectives within many countries. And they have also caused perspectives in member states in the north and the west to diverge from those in the south and the east. The divides over public health, economic victimhood, and the idea of freedom could prove long-lasting. But the most dramatic divide may be that between generations. Across Europe, governments were right to focus on saving the lives of the oldest, but the time has come to focus on the problems of the young.

It is still too early to understand how much the trends identified in ECFR’s survey will reshape politics within and between European countries. But these divides, which have hitherto lain hidden, could create a new political age in Europe as they burst into public view. Covid-19’s new societal divisions could become as consequential to European public life as those spawned by the fiscal and refugee crises of recent years.



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