The pandemic has created geographical and generational divides across the European Union which have the potential to change politics in a significant way.
Crises are like amateur painters — they like to draw and re-draw borders — and every major crisis of the last decade has divided Europe, between states and within states, along different lines.
The euro crisis sundered Europeans north and south, cleaving the continent into debtors and creditors. The refugee crisis created a different dividing line, this time between the east and the west. But while these divisions have been highly visible and crystallised into distinct camps that had an impact on other areas of policy, the pandemic in its early stages seemed to bring Europeans together.
It started as a nationalist moment when EU governments closed their borders overnight – but it quickly evolved into a European moment when EU member states agreed to buy vaccines collectively.
However, as time has gone on, it is becoming increasingly clear that the lived experience of the pandemic varies significantly in many parts of the EU and that some of the bloc’s old divisions, across geographical and generational lines, have re-emerged .
The European Council on Foreign Relations’ newest poll of citizens’ views in the time of the coronavirus reveals a stark divide between the east and the south, on the one hand, and the north and the west, on the other when it comes to citizens’ personal experience of the crisis.
In Sweden, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Austria, and Germany, for example, it found that a majority of respondents have not been personally impacted by the disease. Yet, in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Spain, and Portugal, the opposite is the case.
The second reality revealed by the poll is that Europeans are divided over what they believe to be governments’ motivations behind national COVID-19 restrictions. It turned out that three distinctive and battling tribes populate Europe today: the "Trustful", who have faith in governments and who are convinced that the only reason behind the restrictions was the need to stop the spread of the virus; the "Suspicious", who believe rulers used the restrictions to cover up failings; and the "Accusers", who think governments are instrumentalising the pandemic to increase their control over people.
In different European societies the size of these tribes vary considerably. In polarized societies such as Poland and France, instead of bringing social unity and common purpose, the crisis has reinforced the existing ideological divisions. In the former, ECFR found the largest share of people who think that the government is using pandemic-related restrictions to create the illusion of control or as an excuse to control the public. While, in France, the pandemic has led to “cross-dressing effect” when it comes to the position of the political parties. The crisis has driven the liberal supporters of Emmanuel Macron’s centrist political platform to support highly interventionist state action, and those loyal to Marine Le Pen, whose party has often sought a more authoritarian state, to think that the restrictions were too strict.
Of all of the divides exposed from ECFR’s poll, though, the most glaring – both within European societies and across Europe – is generational. It found that, while almost two-thirds of respondents over the age of 60 do not feel that they have been personally affected by the coronavirus crisis, a majority among respondents aged under 30 have been affected.
For young people, the pandemic has been an existential threat to their way of life, and there is a widespread sense that their future has been sacrificed for the sake of their parents and their grandparents. This sentiment echoes that felt by earlier generations of young people who went through other seismic changes such as world wars and revolutions. And it seems hard to think that we will not see consequences as this divide comes into view.
One of the clearest consequences to have emerged, so far, has been a surge in cynicism - with Europe’s younger generation less likely to believe that the main motivations of their government in introducing pandemic-related restrictions.
The fact that the crisis has further eroded young Europeans’ trust in their political systems could have long-term consequences for the future of democracy. Research by the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge University found that – even before the crisis – today’s young people are the generation most dissatisfied with the performance of democratic governments. They are more sceptical of the merits of democracy compared not only with the older generation, today, but also with young people polled in earlier eras.
We are a step away, in Europe, from a moment in which young people will decide that democracy is not their game.
Ivan Krastev is Chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a Permanent Fellow at the IWM Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna.
Mark Leonard is the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.