There could hardly be a more difficult undertaking than capturing the mood with regard to Europe’s pandemic policy. The think tank ECFR has now tried it and came to some interesting conclusions that current and future governments have many tasks ahead of them. The report with the title “Europe’s invisible rifts: How Covid-19 polarizes European politics” is based on surveys from twelve EU member states, including Austria.
The two authors Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard come to the conclusion that the realities of life in the pandemic divided Europe “just like the euro and refugee crisis, with a south and an east that feel far stronger” than north and west. “Some people were directly affected by illness, some only experienced economic consequences, while others feel unaffected by Covid-19. Those who suffer economically are more likely than others to say that.
Only a fifth feel “free”
The surveys also find a growing gap in perceptions of individual freedom: only 22 percent of people in the countries surveyed said they currently feel “free”; In contrast, 64 percent stated that they still felt “free” two years ago.
The feeling of lack of freedom is strongest in Germany and Austria. Here 49 and 42 percent respectively said that they were not able to organize their daily life in the way they saw fit. Only in the eyes of 15 percent of the probability does the virus and its consequences have no effect on personal freedom in everyday life. On the question of freedom, Austria also shows the greatest change between life before the pandemic and today. 78 percent stated that they still felt “free” two years ago – this range between then and now is the most common in Austria.
Pandemic as a “spectator sport”
It seems surprising that, according to the report, 54 percent, a majority of the total of over 16,000 see themselves “not at all” affected by the pandemic. What is meant here, however, is that dying does not suffer any serious illness, bereavement or economic hardship. The high number also “hide the fact that there are, so to speak, two pandemics within the community,” it says.
Austria in the “West”
The study authors split the regions as follows: North (Sweden, Denmark), West (Austria, France, Germany, Netherlands), East (Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria), South (Italy, Portugal, Spain)
While the majority in southern and eastern Europe stated that the virus had serious effects on people’s lives, it was fundamentally different in western and northern Europe. Many here have expressed the feeling that the virus is causing conditions that are more like a “gruesome spectator sport” than a harrowing life event. In Hungary, for example, 65 percent of the information stated that they had experienced personal stress, whereas in Denmark 72 percent said that the pandemic had “not affected them at all”. In Austria, 51 percent said that the virus had not hit them personally.
It’s a question of age
Krastev and Leonard also see “a worrying gap between the generations in European society coming to light” in the report: the elderly feel less affected, while the younger ones feel more strongly. While almost thirds (64 percent) of those over 60 years of age say they have no disadvantages from the pandemic, the proportion of those under 30 percent does not. They believe that they are bearing the brunt of the aftermath of the crisis, especially in southern and eastern Europe. Younger Europeans are also much more inclined to question government-imposed restrictions, i.e. the survey.
The assessments of the motivations of the state governments in imposing pandemic rules are also very different. In some parts of Europe there is great distrust. Overall, 17 percent said their government’s motivation for the last eighteen months of restrictions was a desire to “control society.” Of the twelve countries, the people dying in Poland had the greatest skepticism.
Only 38 percent believe that the strategy only serves to contain the virus. Almost as many (34 percent) distrusted the Polish government on this issue, and another 27 percent believed that the government’s greatest motivation was to act as a distraction from impotence or incompetence. In Austria, two thirds of the cases say they trusted the motives behind the political Covid strategy, whereas 18 percent said they wanted control behind the restrictions.
Mission to politics
The rifts that the pandemic has opened between regions and generations could, according to the authors, “have profound effects on some of the EU’s most important projects,” such as the right to free movement, the future of the pan-European economic recovery plan and the EU’s relations with the rest of the world Wheal. Krastev and Leonard once again see the pandemic as a “story of two Europe”, similar to what the experiences of the euro crisis and the refugee movement in 2015 showed.
The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) sees itself as the first pan-European think tank and conducts research on foreign policy. The fifty founding members also include ex-finance minister Hannes Androsch (SPÖ) and diplomat Albert Rohan.
“The pandemic seems to be bringing the European nations closer together,” according to the analysis. The states jointly buy vaccines through the EU and created the reconstruction fund. But now Europe is starting to deal with the effects of the pandemic and there is a “deep” risk. These divisions “could usher in a new political age in Europe if they emerge openly,” said political scientist Krastev. “In many countries, social tensions are already simmering to the surface.”
The researcher sees a particular challenge in the differences of opinion between the generations. At the height of the crisis, politicians “rightly placed the emphasis on saving the lives of the elderly”. But now it is time to “concentrate on the problems of the boys”.