Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us

How Covid is fuelling the rise of European populism

Rising anger: Protesters lay bikes down to block a street and set a fire during a protest against the coronavirus measures in Eindhoven in January - Credit: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Covid has damaged populists in power. But it has also assisted those in opposition, especially in Europe where the centre is struggling to protect its population, says NICK COHEN.

To say the radical right is deceitful and malevolent is to state the obvious but miss the point. I do not mean to discourage you from fighting it. Go ahead, please, be my guest.  But however righteous your anger, never forget that the ultra-nationalist wave does not only draws its power from the appeal of racism. Its prospects depend on the failures of the mainstream politicians liberals support to deliver.

They may appear sensible and tolerant but these are not good enough grounds to offer them a free pass. Indeed, you should constantly scrutinise them for a reason that can be hard to admit: the blunders of the mainstream drive voters to the extremes. At this moment, no mainstream failure is greater in Europe than the failure of the European Union to deliver a vaccination programme.

Hundreds of millions of people want the fear of death and the fear of unemployment lifted from them. Yet the European Commission cannot fulfil the first duty of government and protect its citizens.  Already we are seeing riots in the Netherlands against lockdowns. In France, a poll shows Marine Le Pen almost running level with Emmanuel Macron.



It is just one poll and the presidential election is not until next year. But Macron already is so disorientated he’s become a centrist version of Le Pen. In recent weeks, he has blasted out the Trumpian fake news that the AstraZeneca vaccine was “almost ineffective for those over 65” in a transparent attempt to pretend that the European Commission’s inability to guarantee supplies will not result in needless deaths.

Spooked by the anger brought by the threat of mass unemployment and business closure, and the sheer tedium of a pandemic without end, Macron went on to postpone  a third lockdown – a gesture that will make him look dishonest and incompetent if he has to lockdown again as the British and South African variants spread.

The French vaccination rate was just over two doses per hundred people, as of the first week in February, compared with five in Denmark and 15 in the UK.  But if Macron can slyly play to the strong anti-vaxx sentiment in France perhaps he can hope that the voters will overlook the abysmal performance.

Last month’s elections in Portugal, a country that had previously managed perfectly happily without a far-right movement, saw the Chega “Enough” party come from nowhere to 12% of the vote. On the one hand, its leader André Ventura spoke to old far right themes. To be a Portuguese citizen will not be enough to protect you in a Chega-dominated future, Ventura said. He did not intend “to be the president of all Portuguese”, but only of the good or decent Portuguese (“Portugueses de bem”). 

The redefinition of the nation to exclude ethnic minorities, liberals, leftists and anyone else who does not support the far right is an authentic continuation of the fascist tradition. Yet Chega could also use Covid to attack the “inability to manage and organise” of the socialist government that was “irreversibly undermining the confidence of the Portuguese” in the vaccination programme.

In Belgium, the ultranationalist Vlaams Belang recently hit 26.3%, its highest poll rating and six points clear of its nearest rival. Vox, a Francoism re-enactment society, has won significant support in, of all places, Catalonia for the first time.

The one good feature of this miserable time was that Covid-19 was meant to have killed the radical right. You only have to look at the increasingly unhinged wails coming from the right wing of the Conservative party and the Tory press to see how unprepared they were for the world we are now in.

Covid has turned the experts Michael Gove had so little time for in the Brexit referendum into essential figures. A year ago, not one person in 10,000 could name the chief medical officer. Now epidemiologists and virologists are national figures.

Right wing commentators are sensing their own redundancy. A country where you cannot get away with saying Covid is no worse than the flu, or there will be no second wave, or lockdowns cost more lives than they save, is a harsh place for them.

Loudmouthed journalists, who once disgorged whatever prejudice came into their head, have suddenly found their every self-serving fantasy judged against the bleak reality of daily death statistics and hospitalisation rates. I can’t prove this argument, but I believe it to be true that Boris Johnson dithered with fatal consequences for tens of thousands of his luckless citizens because a part of him is still the bragging, know-nothing Telegraph columnist, whose instinct was to dismiss Covid as a fuss about nothing drummed up by the “medical establishment”.

What applies to the professional ignoramuses of the press applies to the calculating ignoramuses of far right politics. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Trump in the US, and many others denied and then downplayed the pandemic because they were strongmen who did not want to concede power or share the spotlight with scientists.  They knew that once they did the aura of the great man delivering decisive leadership would vanish.

If it is not wild with anger already, the inevitable global cooperation Covid will enforce will send a section of the right over the edge. Out of self-interest as much as benevolence, rich countries will have to pump vaccines and money to poor countries to stop the virus overwhelming every country again.

From my point of view and what I take to be the point of view of New European readers, this scenario is all to the good. But the underlying assumption is that the ‘grown-ups in the room’  can deliver. The European Commission could not. It had no expertise in health and no expertise of drawing up deals with global pharmaceutical companies.

It’s all very well saying that the pandemic revived the importance of experts. But Europe’s tragedy was that the commission did not have the expertise to handle Covid and did not possess the modesty and self-knowledge to admit it.

Instead, the Commission behaved as if there was no pandemic. It lacked urgency and compassion for the sick and the unemployed. It wasted time arguing about who would be liable if the production process went wrong rather than realising that there are times when you must forget about  back covering, and a health crisis is just such a time.

It wanted to prevent vaccine nationalism rising among competing EU countries as they fought each other for scarce supplies. A laudable aim, but you have to be able to put laudable aims into practice. The EU could not and so ended up with nationalists uniting against the EU.

Le Pen in France and Matteo Salvini in Italy also had the advantage of being in opposition. At the start of the crisis, voters rallied round their governments, hoping that they could save them. In Britain, despite all the inexcusable mistakes of the Johnson administration, the success of the vaccination programme to date has partly vindicated those hopes.

In much of Europe, the advantage is now with the opposition because European government has failed. That failure may not last. But for the moment the European radical right does not have to advocate leaving the EU – Britain’s experience has squashed that as a realistic political goal.

All it need do is ask why national governments handed over the power to control vaccines, and with it the power to decide who lives and dies who works or sits at home, to an incompetent Brussels.

Where is the accountability or the justice? No one will force Ursula von der Leyen to resign. There is opposition in member states but no opposition in Brussels providing a government-in-waiting ready to take over and remedy the defects of the old regime. The oldest question asked of European institutions is once again a good one: How can voters control you?

The crisis has made the impossible possible. In Britain, a Conservative government, that for a decade convinced a large portion of the electorate austerity was the only responsible policy, is spending incomprehensible sums. In the EU, the notion that member states should close their borders was once a demand confined to the far right. Today it is accepted everywhere.

Contrary to predictions, Covid has added weapons to the far-right’s arsenal.  Its revival illustrates truths that are too often forgotten in the heat of partisan warfare. You should always ask hard questions of your side. You should never make excuses, however intensely the urge to focus all your anger on the right becomes. On the contrary, you should demand more of the men and women you support than of your enemies because when your friends fail your enemies succeed.

What do you think? Have your say on this and more by emailing letters@theneweuropean.co.uk