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Analysis: Will COVID-19 usher in a new wave of populism in Europe?

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Leader of the Orange Vests movement, Antonio Pappalardo, addresses a rally in Rome, Tuesday, June 2, 2020
Leader of the Orange Vests movement, Antonio Pappalardo, addresses a rally in Rome, Tuesday, June 2, 2020   -   Copyright  Alessandra Tarantino/AP Photo
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In the decade that followed the global financial crash of 2008, a wave of protest and populism battered and challenged many of the perceived norms of Europe’s political discourse.

Coupled with the subsequent Eurozone and migrations crises, politicians were branded as an elite, out of touch with mass public opinion. The fire took hold. From anti-austerity measures in Greece, to the rise of the far-right in Germany, to increasing authoritarianism in Central Europe. Nationalism in Spain, populism in Italy, the Yellow Vest protesters in France and, of course, Brexit in Britain. European politics was upended.

But Europe in many ways now faces a much bigger crisis. The economic shock from the lockdown of almost the entire continent will lead to a recession far deeper than the one we saw 10 years ago. Millions more could lose their jobs, more businesses could go bust. Could we also see more political turmoil?

Holding the centre

Well, actually, so far, we have seen quite the opposite. Populations have, to the surprise of some, rallied behind their governments and leaders. Some, like Angela Merkel, are enjoying record-high ratings. Curfews and confinement measures have been successfully adhered to. Science, testing, medical advice and the expert are very much back in fashion.

However, will that position hold? Or is another wave of so-called populism about to consume Europe? For early signs we can look to Italy, the EU’s worst-affected country. Like elsewhere, government support has increased, while far-right leader Matteo Salvini’s polling has dropped. Prime Minister Guippse Conte is generally seen as having steered the country at an acute time in a competent manner.

Dissent, though, is beginning to grow. In the past week, hundreds of people donned orange vests to join a new protest movement. A broad sweep of people, with equally broad grievances. Some are angry with the government's handling of the coronavirus crisis. Others are worried about vaccines, or concerned about 5G wireless technology and its effects. Concerns that have been widely debunked. Many people also have lost their jobs and believe the country's lockdown measures have strangled the economy.

Orange Vests

Described as a "rightist-libertarian" and "turbo populist" movement by the Italian media and modelling themselves on the Yellow Vest protests in France, the leader of the Orange Vests, former parliamentarian Antonio Pappalardo, claims the coronavirus pandemic does not exist.

"The pandemic does not exist, it's total bulls---," Pappalardo told a rally in Bari on Sunday. "The coronavirus is not lethal, it only kills the already sick over 80. Enough with the lies and falsehoods, you have terrified the Italian people."

The movement has three main aims: to unseat Conte’s government, to take Italy out of the European Union and ditch the euro, and to spread the message that COVID-19 is no more than a “bad flu.”

We shouldn’t get carried away. These protests have thus far been small, their views are very much on the fringe. But as the initial medical crisis eases, every government’s actions will face greater scrutiny, and as the economic mess grows, so too will discontent. Demonstrations like these will not only be confined to Italy. They are certainly already happening online.

Discontent and disconnect

Populism - a catch-all-term I have never liked - is in essence not a bad thing. It is a popular expression of discontent and disconnect. Austerity hit millions hard and has not proven to be the panacea for our economic problems. Concerns about mass migration can’t simply be branded as racism and wrong. Brexit was a decades-long, legitimate issue in Britain, a reflection that the country hadn’t bought into the EU project, settled, of course, through a referendum.

Concerns about populism are to be found in the answers provided by the people who claim to have them. Those answers - talk about simple solutions - stretch the truth, mislead or indulge in conspiracy theories. The language is often divisive and demagogic. The purpose at times to malign some at the expense of others.

The Orange Vest protests in Italy will, in all likelihood, grow. In France, the Yellow Vests are starting to organise again. Politics and politicians are likely to be challenged in this new era. This is not fundamentally a bad thing. The question is, can those leaders currently in power come up with better answers than those who claim to have them?

Darren McCaffrey is Euronews' political editor.