Illustration by Hannah Robinson

At the time of writing, Europe has the second-largest COVID-19 outbreak in the world. From the unprecedented toils of people’s livelihoods to financial insecurity, COVID-19 has brought the European Union (EU) under towering pressure to resolve the crisis. 

Leaders have agreed to set some priorities to coordinate their responses, that include increasing the production of personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as fast-tracking vaccination research.

However, according to a recent survey conducted by the European Parliament, two-thirds of respondents are dissatisfied with the collectiveness shown between member states. There is a similar surge of anger over the way in which certain member state governments have handled COVID-19, particularly in countries that lack fiscal breathing space and are piling on immeasurable debt.

For Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, her wish of an “all for one” spirit has, sadly, being denuded of optimism. An uneven recovery by the EU is propping up Euroscepticism.

In March, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti declared a lockdown and urgently requested help from other nations. But it took several days before there was a whiff of a response. In that brief episode, Lega Nord and far-right Fratelli d’Italia saw a spike in the polls.

However, the EU does have an unfettering ability to drive itself out of crises. But we can expect that the implications of the last six months may be far worse than the 2008 recession. But it is not economics that is driving this change of feeling and turning people away from Brussels. For the most part, the states’ public health messages have been clear and in many member states including Denmark, the government’s response has been praised for slowing the spread. However over the next few weeks and months (and not accounting the likelihood of a second wave), governments will continue to face growing calls to do more.

As the number of stories about failures in policymaking grow, we can expect populist politicians will use the pandemic to serve their political interests: in their eyes, to give a voice to people who feel like their voices have been lost in public conversation.

For the likes of Matteo Salvini, Italy’s former interior minister, the pandemic provides an opportunity to persuade citizens that their liberal internationalist administration is flailing and failing. Branching to voters back when news broke of the preliminary outbreak, Salvini used to the pandemic to call for stricter immigration legislation;

“The infection is spreading. I want to know from the government who has come in and gone out. We have to seal our borders now…Allowing migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible.” 

Similarly, Marine Le Pen of Rassemblement National’s disagreed with the World Health Organisation’s initial statement of ‘open borders’; she argued that “a border protects populations, whatever the situation”. This quote sinks deeper into the roots of populism and gives a better understanding of the concept’s force. 

Figures like Le Pen are using the pandemic as a rhetorical tool to not only push overtly authoritarian positions (Hungary’s Victor Orbán has already succeeded in realising this with his rule of decree) but more importantly to criticise the “religion of the borderlessness of the leaders of the European Union”.

People that have de-aligned from distant mainstream parties and European integration, will continue to support these leaders, even if mainstream electoral support for these radical parties is dawdling because voters are choosing to stand by incumbents as a symbol of solidarity.

Europe’s resilience has been, and will continue to be, tested over time; whether that is from global pandemics or social movements. The fire that populists continues to fan, is a test that pro-EU figureheads need to be aware of. 

National populists may not be strong in numbers as of present, but they will find ground once the immediate threat of the virus recedes. I can only imagine – in light of the economic degradation that the pandemic has caused – how the AfD, the Party for Freedom and others – are ready to thorn the EU for the lack of aid, and the dearth of solidarity, and weakening alienage between its citizens.

Sooner or later, COVID-19 will be gone. Populism will not.