Radically different experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic have created toxic geographical, generational and societal divides across Europa that could shape the continent’s politics for years to come, según un estudio.
Research by the European Council on Foreign Relations based on polling in 12 EU states shows a “tale of two pandemics and two Europes”, with the past 18 months taking a vastly different toll on regions, age groups and individuals in the bloc.
“Europe is today a continent of split experiences: stark divides have emerged that could be as serious as those of the eurozone debt crisis y el 2015 migration crisis,” said Mark Leonard, the director and co-founder of the ECFR and a co-author of the report.
Acerca de 54% of Europeans said they had not been seriously affected by the pandemic, majorities in southern and eastern Europe reported significant personal challenges – while those in northern and western Europe largely viewed it as a “spectator sport”.
Fully 72% of respondents questioned in Denmark, 65% en Alemania, 64% in France and 63% in the Netherlands said the coronavirus had not caused them, their family or friends serious illness, bereavement or economic distress over the past 18 meses.
Those figures contrasted dramatically, sin emabargo, with countries in eastern and southern Europe, where majorities in Hungary (65%), España (64%), Portugal (61%), Polonia (61%), Bulgaria (59%) and Italy (51%) reported the opposite.
The research also revealed a stark generation gap over the impact of the pandemic, with almost two-thirds (64%) of respondents aged over 60 en el 12 countries saying they had experienced no personal repercussions, comparado con 43% of under-30s.
There were outliers: most under-30s in two north-western countries, France and Denmark, said they had not suffered from the pandemic, while most over-60s in four eastern and southern ones – Spain, Portugal, Hungary and Poland – said they had.
“The generation gap is one of the most dramatic divides exposed by this polling,” said the other co-author, Ivan Krastev, adding that while governments across Europe had been right to focus on saving the lives of the oldest, it had clearly come at a cost.
“It is time for policymakers to focus on the problems of the young,” Krastev said. “An entire generation feel that their future has been sacrificed for the sake of their parents and grandparents.”
That feeling has contributed to a surge in cynicism among young people about governments’ intentions in introducing Covid restrictions, the poll shows, with as many as 43% of under-30s saying they were sceptical of governments’ motives.
Acerca de 20% of respondents under 30 said coronavirus lockdowns were “an excuse to control the public”, mientras 23% felt they were about “creating an appearance of being in control”. Por el contrario, 71% of over-60s said they believed they were aimed at containing the spread of the virus.
Across all countries surveyed, the polling found 64% of respondents were broadly “trustful”, believing official decisions were driven by public safety, while about 19% were “suspicious” they were intended mainly to cover up government impotence and incompetence. Acerca de 17% were “accusers”, believing the main objective of restrictions was to increase governments’ control over people’s lives.
It found the lowest percentages of “trustful” respondents in Poland (38%), Bulgaria (50%) and France (56%) – with a large minority of French respondents (24%, rising to 37% among supporters of the far-right Rassemblement National) saying they believed the government’s Covid strategy was aimed mainly at controlling the public.
The data revealed a further striking divide between people who experienced the pandemic as a health crisis, most of whom were trustful of their government’s motives, and those who experienced it more as an economic disaster, who were broadly less trustful and more suspicious.
The survey also found only 22% of Europeans said they felt “free” in their ability to lead their lives as they see fit in the Covid era, sharply down from the 64% who said they felt free before the first major effects of the pandemic were felt in Europe in March 2020.
The share of those who felt “unfree” was significantly larger among those who suffered economic rather than health consequences, it found, and was most acute in the bloc’s largest economy, Alemania, dónde 49% of respondents said they no longer felt free in their daily lives.
The question was important, the report’s authors suggested, because of a significant shift in the way political parties are relating to freedom in the wake of the pandemic, with many mainstream parties busily embracing sometimes coercive central government action and many populist parties becoming more libertarian.
The authors said the polling, carried out in May and June using representative samples of more than 1,000, revealed important differences and social tensions between and within EU member states that should prompt the EU and national governments to think seriously about their decision-making around public health, economic opportunity and the idea of freedom.
It showed divisions between those “who have faced personal trauma from the pandemic and those who have not; those who favour long-term restrictions and those who think civil liberties must be restored in full; and perhaps most worryingly, those who trust their national government’s motives and those who do not”, Leonard said.
The ways in which people have been affected by the pandemic “have created different perspectives within many countries, and also caused perspectives in member states in the north and the west to diverge from those in the south and the east”, the two authors concluded.
“Divides over public health, economic victimhood, and the idea of freedom could prove long-lasting, but the most dramatic divide may be that between generations. These divides could create a new political age in Europe as they burst into public view.”