Since the arrival of Covid-19 in Europe early last year, the numbers of confirmed cases and deaths have remained at critical levels across the continent. At the time of writing, infections exceed 42 million and coronavirus-related fatalities have passed the one million mark. The gravity of the situation became apparent as early as Spring last year, when European governments, with rare exceptions like Sweden, did away with hubristic dismissal of the pandemic to decree restrictions in the form of remote schooling, non-essential business closures, mandatory mask-wearing and expanded executive powers.
One of the most impactful measures at that time was a limit on crossregional travel and the creation of social bubbles, limiting how many people were allowed to meet in person. At the same time as the coronavirus spread, so have populist right-wing ideologies across Europe, giving rise to coinage of a new term, ‘pandemic populism’. The latest manifestations of this ideological hybrid are large-scale protests seen in the Netherlands, Germany and Finland.
A sweeping criticism of scientific orthodoxy has been aligned with populist slogans against globalization, immigration and multi-culturalism, along with the propagation of rights of marginal groups. It is impossible to deconstruct these coterminous movements to identify the various factors that meld into these protests, but the presumption is that this is a coalition of diverse interest groups.
One protestor at the Helsinki anti-COVID-restrictions rally this month carried a sign reading ‘White Lives Matter’, an obvious riposte to the global Black Lives Matter protest movement that resulted in summer 2020 following the totally unnecessary death of George Floyd in Minnesota at the hands of the police.
With the European continent now in a third wave of the debilitating coronavirus pandemic, those vocally opposing government-imposed restrictions for public health reasons and those who promote right-wing ideology are proceeding hand-in-hand towards a political reckoning. The emergence of, and increasing support gained by, various populist movements in Europe long predates the pandemic.
As with Donald Trump’s unlikely US presidential campaign and victory in 2016, Europe also saw leaders with autocratic inclinations use the democratic process to implement populist agendas in Europe. President Victor Orban set about reshaping Hungary’s democratic apparatus and Poland voted into power a right-wing leader, Andrzej Duda, who is so divisive that his policies have sparked demonstrations in Warsaw, the scale of which has been unseen since Soviet times.
And in Britain, the public, animated by fears of unrestrained immigration and domination from the EU capital in Brussels, voted narrowly to remove itself from the European Union. In attempting to establish a connection between the anti-lockdown protests and the discrete European-flavoured populism, an appreciation of the nature of populism may be attempted. There are two key ideas housed in the rhetoric; firstly, that ‘the people’ face a conflict against ‘the others’.
Essential here is the delegitimization of large segments of the populace, be they immigrants, those of different religions, or simply fellow citizens who disagree politically. Secondly, that strong centralized leadership is called for in order to advance the agenda of real patriots. Contrasting with those opposed to Covid-19 restrictions, there is the destabilizing and frustrating new reality many now encounter, a situation few predicted and which caught most governments unprepared and all of them under-prepared.
There is small wonder in those circumstances that those feeling the pinch of coronavirus restrictions became readily susceptible to theories of scapegoats, conspiracies and reductive narratives. The tactics for mobilizing opposition in Europe to government-prescribed Covid19 restrictions appear to have been imported wholesale to Europe from the United States, drawing from the extreme propaganda of the anti-liberal section of the far-right of the Republican Party.
Social media platforms contribute ideological echo chambers where the most controversial voices are algorithmically aided to reach the widest audience in order to optimize engagement with as many people as possible. Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, with Instagram & WhatsApp, are listed companies beholden to shareholders, not the good of humanity.
For a platform whose mission is to connect its users, Facebook does not give much consideration to who those people are, and whether they should remain connected, while a report published this month by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that accounts on Instagram promoting health misinformation on Covid-19 grew in the first quarter of the year by more than one million viewers.
Right-wing groups take refuge in poorly moderated digital platforms where conspiracy theories provide a fruitful outlet in the search for a beleaguered public’s attention. Yet the merging of Europe’s far-right groups and anti-lockdown movements online does not necessarily take any uniform shape, nor always create the same impact on mainstream political engagement.
Reports in Freidrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Foundation for Social Democracy from eight European countries suggest that in some cases the crisis brought an opportunity for greater coordination between altogether disparate ends of the political spectrum. It is impossible to assess the potential outcomes of the ongoing situation.
Even with the administration of vaccines, Covid-19 seems good to remain for the foreseeable future. The eagerness of populist activists to harness the present existential despair will not be fully understood for many years, but it is sure to impress itself strongly on future European politics.
(The writers are, respectively, an academic in Tampere, Finland and India’s former foreign secretary)