Europe’s pandemic politics: How the virus has changed the public’s worldview

Кризис усилит поддержку государства, веру в экспертов и как евроскептиков, так и сторонников ЕС – так считали эксперты в разгар вируса. Новое исследование ECFR показывает, что все это иллюзии. Кризис произвел революцию в представлении граждан о глобальном порядке, стирая различия между национализмом и глобализмом

Иван Крастев, Марк Леонард, ECFR

The covid-19 crisis is probably the greatest social experiment of our lives. We do not know when or how it will end. It is still too early to predict how radically it will change the way Europeans see their own societies. But we can already see that the pandemic has transformed the way Europeans look at the world beyond Europe, and – as a consequence – the role of the European Union in their lives.

In the early stages of the crisis, politics was suspended, and public opinion fell in behind the actions of national governments. Citizens were sent into internal exile in their own homes, many paralysed with fear and uncertainty. Governments moved quickly to introduce emergency measures to stop the spread of the disease, shore up healthcare systems, and save jobs and businesses from collapse. In the next stage of the crisis, as governments raise vast sums of money to fund a recovery, they will need to take politics into account. It will not be enough to develop the right policies; governments and EU leaders will also need to find the right language and frameworks to win public support for their policies. In order to do this, they will need to understand how covid-19 has– or has not – changed publics’ fears and expectations.

To find out how the pandemic has affected European citizens’ views on politics, society, and Europe’s place in the world, the European Council on Foreign Relations commissioned a poll of over 11,000 citizens in nine countries across Europe – Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden – covering more than two-thirds of the EU’s population and GDP. The poll was conducted at a moment when most EU member states had started reopening their economies, and when the economic recovery replaced public health at the top of the policy agenda. The results of the poll call into question some of the early lessons that political commentators drew from the crisis. The emerging conventional wisdom is that covid-19 has: created a surge in public support for a newly empowered role for the state; restored trust in the role of experts; and empowered the forces of both Euroscepticism and European federalism. But the findings of our survey challenge all three of these assumptions – and show them to be illusions that could lead European governments to fall foul of public opinion as they plan the recovery.

Before the crisis, the continent was increasingly split between pro-European cosmopolitans and Eurosceptic nationalists. At the beginning of the pandemic, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, warned that the virus could change the balance between these two camps in Europe, strengthening the nationalists. Several weeks into the crisis, a replacement conventional wisdom emerged that held that, actually, a federalist moment of European integration was coming into being. Perhaps confusion in the flux was understandable: ECFR’s survey shows that, rather than strengthening one camp or the other, the virus has scrambled the distinction between the two. On the one hand, many nationalists appear to have realised that European cooperation is the only way to preserve the relevance of their nation states. On the other hand, many cosmopolitans have seen that, in a world squeezed between Xi Jinping’s China and Donald Trump’s America, Europe’s best hope for preserving its values lies in strengthening its own “strategic sovereignty” rather than relying on global multilateral institutions. This new mood creates an astonishing amount of space for reviving the European project. But, unless members of the governing class across Europe dispel their illusions about what is happening, they risk squandering it.


The return of ‘big government’ is a fact. But, in many places, it is not back by popular demand but rather because elites seized new powers to deal with the pandemic. Our polling shows that the number of people who have lost trust in the capacity of the government to act is larger than the number who have become keener on government intervention in the wake of the crisis. In two individual questions in our poll, we asked how confidence in the power of governments in general has changed; and how respondents assess the performance of their national government during the crisis. Across all nine European countries, only 29 per cent say they have greater confidence in the government and, at the same time, believe that their own government has done well in the crisis. In contrast, 33 per cent have lost confidence in the power of government while also holding a dim view of how their own government has performed.

While publics have been willing to go along with the state returning to the role of managing and owning large swathes of the economy, our data shows that this has not been accompanied by a wave of enthusiasm of the type seen in many countries in the 1920s and the 1940s, as governments at that time nationalised major industries. Citizens today appear to see the state less as a motor of progress than as an insurance mechanism; or, perhaps, as a warehouse for unwanted workers or for the stockpiled masks, medicines, and food that we could need in the next crisis.

Of course, these aggregate figures mask huge variations between EU member states. At one extreme is Denmark, where 60 per cent of voters both have greater confidence in the power of government than they previously did and believe their government has performed well. At the other extreme is France, where 61 per cent have less confidence in government per se and a negative perception of their government’s performance.

Studying the figures in more detail reveals that positive views of the power of government and the performance of the authorities correspond strongly with how citizens vote. Supporters of incumbent parties are, unsurprisingly, overrepresented among those who believe in the power of government and agree that their own government has done a good job. On the other hand, supporters of non-government parties largely regard their governments’ performances poorly and exhibit less confidence in the power of government. Sweden is an outlier, however: there, supporters of several non-government parties also think the government has performed well. National pride could explain this. Swedes across party affiliations appear to approve of Swedish exceptionalism in the pandemic, although this high level of support might already have changed – since our polling was conducted, the Swedish debate has become more heated as Sweden’s death count grows bigger than in neighbouring states that implemented a total lockdown.

And, when it comes to support for parties, the crisis seems to have accentuated existing trends rather than fundamentally changing politics. The polling we carried out on party support suggests that covid-19 has not fundamentally altered the balance between the political mainstream and populist challengers. When populist voters change their vote, they tend to move to another populist party, while mainstream party voters who do the same move to another mainstream party.

Overall, therefore, the coronavirus crisis has not yet created new political cleavages or cleared a path for new political actors; nor has it fundamentally changed voters’ attitudes towards the role of the state.

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