Posted on Sep 02, 2021
A new polling-backed report of 12 EU member states finds 1 in 5 Europeans feel “free” in their everyday life - compared to 64% saying they felt free before the pandemic.
It says that:
● Support for “lockdowns” is mixed across Europe as we head into the autumn – with scepticism about the motivation behind lockdown restrictions most pronounced in Poland, Bulgaria and France.
● The polling report also reveals a generational and geographical divide in Europe - with young people, in particular, not only feeling more affected by the pandemic but also more likely to attribute responsibility for the ongoing impact
● While most European citizens say they have not been affected by the pandemic, a majority of respondents in Southern and Eastern Europe reveal that it has caused them serious illness, bereavement or economic distress. 72% of Danes, for example, have not been affected “at all” by COVID-19, compared to 65% of Hungarian respondents, who say they have faced personal challenges.
● The geographical and generational divergences born from COVID could have “long-lasting implications” in Europe – especially to debates on public health, economic equity, and the idea of freedom.
● Poland, Germany, and France could each be emerging as archetypes for post-pandemic politics.
Eighteen months on from the outbreak of COVID-19 in Europe, deep geographical and generational divides are threatening to reshape citizens’ attitudes towards the role of the state and the idea of freedom in many EU countries, according to a new polling-backed report published this week by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
ECFR’s survey of 12 EU member states - which, collectively, comprise over 300 million citizens and account for 80% of the bloc’s GDP – found that a majority of Europeans (54%) feel that they have not been affected “at all” by the coronavirus pandemic.
However, according to ECFR’s data, this belies a tale of two pandemics within the bloc: Majorities in southern and eastern Europe say the virus has caused them serious illness, bereavement or economic distress, while, in western and northern Europe, the contrary is the case, with most respondents viewing COVID-19 more as a gruesome spectator sport.
For example, in Hungary, 65% of respondents to ECFR’s poll stated that they have experienced personal impacts as a result of the virus, compared to 72% of Danes, who noted that the pandemic had not affected them “at all”. The poll revealed a further divide around the idea of individual freedom, too, with just 22% of Europeans saying they currently feel “free”, down from 64% - what they said they felt two years ago. The sentiment of not currently feeling free was most pronounced in Germany, where almost half of respondents (49%) said that they are unable to live their day-to-day life as they see fit. Hungary was at the opposite extreme on this question, among the 12 surveyed member states, with 88% saying they feel “free” or “partly free”.
The polling also unearthed a troubling generational gap within European society. It found that almost two thirds (64%) of those aged 60 and over did not feel personally affected by the crisis, while a majority of under-30s (57%) report having faced illness and economic challenges over the past eighteen months.
A fault line was detected, too, between those who trust their government’s rationale for introducing national coronavirus restrictions, and those who believe state-mandated lockdowns were “an excuse to control the public” or a way for governments to appear in control of the crisis. Respondents in Poland were outliers in this case, with 62% of those who expressed their opinion doubting the government’s motivations. In France, where large numbers of citizens note that they have been personally unaffected by COVID, 44% expressed scepticism of the government and its coronavirus strategy.
The findings contained within the polling-backed report suggest that these new, coronavirus-induced divisions within Europe could have profound implications for some of the EU’s biggest projects, such as freedom of movement, the future of the bloc’s pan-European recovery plan, and its relations with the rest of the world as conducted through vaccine diplomacy, overseas aid, and more.
● A majority of Europeans believe they have not been personally affected by COVID-19. 54% of respondents to ECFR’s survey said that the coronavirus has not caused them serious illness, bereavement or economic distress over the past eighteen months – with this viewpoint most pronounced in Denmark (72%), Germany (65%), France (64%) and the Netherlands (63%).
● However, in southern and eastern Europe, the opposite is true. In Hungary (65%), Spain (64%), Portugal (61%), Poland (61%), Bulgaria (59%) and Italy (51%), a majority of respondents noted that they have experienced personal impacts with respect to COVID-19.
● Just 1 in 5 Europeans (22%) feel “free” in their day-to-day life, in terms of the ability to lead life as they see fit. This is down from 64% who say they felt “free” two years before the crisis. The share of those who feel “unfree” was larger (37%) among those who say the pandemic caused them economic hardship but not a health-related one, compared to those who either suffered health-related effects of the pandemic (26%), or were not affected by COVID at all (25%). Overall, this feeling was most acute in the EU’s leading economy, Germany, where almost half (49%) of those polled stated that they feel “not free” in their everyday life.
● In the main, respondents across the surveyed EU states (48%) think that individuals not following the rules, people returning from travels, and foreign citizens were most responsible for the impact of the coronavirus in their country. Majorities who believe that threats come from other people can be found with respondents in the Netherlands (63%), Portugal (57%), Austria (56%), Sweden (54%), Denmark (54%), and Germany (53%).
● Almost as many (43%) of Europe’s citizens attribute the outbreak and spread of COVID-19 to governments, including their own, foreign actors, such as the Chinese government, or institutions. In Poland (58%), Spain (57%), and France (52%) a majority of citizens hold this view. In Italy – a country which received high-profile Chinese assistance during the first wave of the pandemic, in the form of medical equipment, expertise, and research support – citizens are on the fence, with almost half of those surveyed (47%) blaming governments and institutions for the outbreak and spread of the virus.
● There is a significant generation gap in Europe on the impacts of the pandemic. While almost two-thirds (64%) of respondents over 60 say they experienced no personal repercussions from COVID-19, the proportion drops to 43% among under-30s. France and Denmark are the only countries polled where a majority of those under 30 say they are not impacted by the crisis. The outliers among the over-60s are Spain, Portugal, Hungary, and Poland, where majorities feel impacted by the crisis.
● Younger Europeans are also much more likely to question government-mandated restrictions. 43% of those under 30 believe national governments introduced lockdowns as “an excuse to control the public” (20%) or to create the appearance they were “in control of the situation” (23%). 71% of over-60s, meanwhile, view lockdowns as a way to limit the spread of the virus.
● However, from a pan-European viewpoint, most citizens trust the motivations behind their country’s coronavirus strategies. Almost two thirds of respondents (64%) overall believe lockdowns were introduced to contain the spread of the virus.
● On the application of restrictions, among those who reported being impacted by the illness or bereavement, majorities of respondents in Hungary (71%), Denmark (62%), Bulgaria (56%) Portugal (55%) and Austria (52%) believe that the interventions from their government were “about right”. On the other hand, in Sweden a majority (52%) among those who reported being impacted by the illness or bereavement – and in France (42%) and Germany (40%), a plurality in that group – believe that restrictions were “not strict enough”. Meanwhile, in Poland, the largest share of health-affected respondents (43%) to ECFR’s survey stated that they felt restrictions were “too strict”.
● Disbelief about the motivations of national governments do have traction in some parts of Europe. 17% of those surveyed believe that their government’s motives behind the past eighteen months of restrictions are in an effort to “control the public”. Of the 12 member states surveyed, respondents in Poland were most sceptical across this point, with just 38% believing that their government’s COVID strategy is intended solely to limit the spread of the virus. In France, too, a large minority (24%) think the primary motivation behind state intervention is to “control the public” (this is even higher – at 37% - among the current supporters of the right-wing presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen).
In their analysis of the survey data, Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard assert that this tale of two pandemics is a tale of two Europes, with the differences in the experiences of countries reminiscent of those between creditor and debtor countries in the euro crisis, and between member states that attracted refugees in 2015 and those that did not.
The pandemic, in its early stages, seemed to bring Europeans together, as governments collectively bought vaccines and took the bold step of launching the recovery fund. However, as Europe starts to deal with the long-term impact of COVID-19, the disparities in personal experience could shift from being a “silent divide” to a “major schism”.
Pointing explicitly to the generational splits of opinion, Krastev and Leonard warn that national governments and the EU could face issues, particularly around policies relating to public health, economic opportunities, and the idea of freedom, and argue that, while European governments “were right to focus on saving the lives of the oldest at the height of the crisis”, the “time has now come to focus on the problems of the young”.
Co-author and founding director of ECFR, Mark Leonard said:“While, in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, it appeared that Europeans were coming together and coalescing around a unified response, stark divides have since emerged that could be as serious as those during the euro and refugee crises.
Today, Europe is a continent of split experiences: those that have faced personal trauma from the pandemic, and those that have not. Those that favour long-term restrictions, and those that think our civil liberties should be restored in full. And, lastly, and perhaps most worryingly, as we seek to find an exit from this health crisis, those that trust the motives of their national government and those that do not.
This makes for a fragile climate in many parts of Europe, and, for national governments and the EU, could present issue, as they seek to restore personal freedoms and roll-out their COVID recovery packages.”
Co-author and Chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Ivan Krastev added, “Since its inception, the European Union has been shaped by crises. It is too early to understand the full impact of COVID-19 on European public life. Nevertheless, the divisions that are becoming apparent across the continent could create a new political age in Europe as they burst into view. Differences are not just visible between countries - in many countries, societal tensions are bubbling to the surface.
One of the clearest consequences so far - and potentially the most dramatic - is the generational gap. Across Europe, governments were right to focus on saving the lives of the oldest, but this came at a cost. An entire generation feel that their future has been sacrificed for the sake of their parents and grandparents. As policymakers continue to craft the continent’s pandemic recovery, it is time for them to focus on the problems of the young.
The pandemic 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.”
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