December 29, 2021 12:29 pm
2021 began with the hope that the production of a vaccine would put an end to the pandemic, but ended with a new variant of the virus and the growing fear that covid-19 will stay with us forever. Both in the media and in politics, the year was once again dominated by the virus and the pandemic. And most likely it will be like this again next year. Looking back over 2021, at least four elements and trends can be identified that will continue to influence European politics throughout 2022.
The lack of a clear electoral orientation
In recent years, a great many articles have been published on the “end of populism” and the “return of the left”, which in most cases presented carefully selected “evidence” to support their thesis, highlighting some results and ignoring others. If we focus on the four most important legislative elections that took place in the European Union – Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany and the Netherlands – we see very different results. The left has really only won in Germany, while it remains stable in the Netherlands, loses a lot in Bulgaria (out of three electoral rounds) and is completely wiped out in the Czech Republic.
Likewise, the “moderate right” (whatever that expression may still mean in the twenty-first century) was the great defeat in Germany, but the real triumph in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. Similarly, compared to the peak of 2017 (reached on the in the wake of the “refugee crisis”), right-wing populism loses some support in three states, but is gaining ground in the Netherlands. That said, with the exception of the Netherlands, the other three states mentioned have unpublished coalition governments and prime ministers who belong to different political groups in the Strasbourg parliament.
Seven legislative elections are scheduled for 2022 in the states of the European Union, as well as some important presidential elections, in particular in France. If we take a look at the polls, the picture remains chaotic and no clear trend emerges, except perhaps the one towards continued fragmentation. Indeed, support for the larger parties has remained stable over the past year. And even if new governments arise, it is difficult to predict whether they will be predominantly left, right, moderate or populist.
The polarization on measures against covid-19
While the majority of citizens in all countries of Europe support the main government measures against covid-19, the opposing minorities are radicalizing. In countries where it is not in power, the far right has become the main voice of dissidents, who remain a very heterogeneous group, apparently united only by common distrust of individual governments. While many far-right parties were among the first to call for restrictive measures in early 2020, most have since changed positions and moved on to downplaying the threat of the virus, sometimes even denying its existence. With the restrictive measures still in place, and sometimes even stricter than in the past, protests have increased and become more frequent. Activists and far-right groups are particularly active in these mobilizations, but have failed to take control of them as with the refugee protests in 2015-2016.
Given the disproportionate attention that the media and politics have devoted to this noisy minority, the pandemic has become the central theme of far-right populist campaigns. However, the broad consensus on stricter migration policies and their opposition to state restrictions prevent them from seriously mobilizing on their two core principles, nativism and authoritarianism. Since it is very likely that 2022 will fuel the frustration and intolerance related to the pandemic and the restrictive measures, it can be assumed that the far right will try to overshadow the “no-vax” trend, but without being able to garner support. broader on the theme of the fight against immigration.
The pandemic hasn’t changed the world
In 2021, several sensationalist articles presented covid-19 as a groundbreaking event that would forever change the world order, if not the world itself. However, almost two years after the start of the pandemic, the “world 2.0″ looks very similar to the “world 1.0″, at least in terms of politics. Not only have few new parties or new coalitions emerged, but most governments remain dominated by formations that existed before the pandemic and all the other crises of the twenty-first century. And even if we talk a little more about the role of the state, there has been no “great reset” (as the World Economic Forum defined its proposal to rebuild the economy after Covid-19). This does not mean rejecting the theoretical possibility of a “new post-pandemic world”. But for the moment it is only speculation, with no evidence of decisive changes in attitudes, policies or the outcome of the elections.
On the contrary, there seems to be an increasingly large group of people who have left the pandemic behind, or are eager to forget it. And this will further weaken the effectiveness of government policies. The main question in the short and medium term is whether the pandemic will still have significant economic consequences and, more importantly, how national governments and the European Union will respond. For now, few political leaders have called for austerity measures, but the situation could change in the near future. However, given that even the great crisis of 2008 had rather modest effects on European politics (mostly a temporary revival of populist parties and a structural weakening of the center-left), it is not certain that the economic repercussions of the pandemic will profoundly transform the continent. .
The European Union: from Brexit to illiberal democracy
Brexit has long dominated EU concerns after 2016. Although the process seemed to have ended with the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement of December 2020, recent problems with the transit of goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain have put the issue back on the political agenda. But by now Brussels seems to have understood that the real threat to its existence comes from the east. The offensive against liberal democracy in Hungary and Poland has finally led to concrete measures, from expulsion de facto from the European People’s Party (EPP) of the Fidesz party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (although, technically, it was Orbán who withdrew Fidesz from the EPP in March) up to the most recent decision to block tens of billions of euros of funds destined for Budapest and Warsaw. Furthermore, the new governments of Germany and the Netherlands have included in their programs an explicit reference to the importance of respecting the rule of law in the countries of the Union.
While illiberal parties didn’t lose too much ground in 2021, two prominent politicians from that area have left the limelight. In the Czech Republic, in October Andrej Babiš, increasingly in difficulty and therefore in increasingly radical positions, lost the elections and the leadership of the country. In Austria, the former child prodigy Sebastian Kurz resigned from the post of chancellor and, later, announced his retirement from politics, as investigations against him for corruption accumulated. In 2022, more populists could fall. In this sense, the elections in France, Hungary and Slovenia will be very important.
Much of the attention will again be monopolized by France, where the most likely scenario is another ballot between the current President of the Republic Emmanuel Macron and the leader of the radical right Marine Le Pen. There may be a new Macron victory, albeit by a smaller margin than in 2017. However, the rise of new far-right candidate Eric Zemmour in the first round will necessarily weaken Marine Le Pen, who could also end up excluded from the ballot given the recent success in the polls by Valérie Pécresse, leader and candidate of the center-right party Les Républicains. And while 2022 is unlikely to bring a new right-wing populist to power in Europe – barring early elections in Italy – two illiberal leaders currently in office will face the challenge of the polls. In Slovenia Janez Janša, a kind of miniature Orbán, could follow the same trajectory as Babiš and be ousted from power by a broad but determined coalition. In Hungary, on the other hand, Orbán faces an opposition that is finally united and ready to mobilize, with all the credentials to win. Much will depend on how “free and fair” the elections are.
If these two leaders are ousted, the last illiberal government in the European Union will remain the Polish one, led by the Law and Justice party. And there will no longer be anyone in the European Council to protect him with the right of veto. With the end of the era of the “great peacemaker” Angela Merkel, and with a Franco-German axis openly hostile to illiberal democracies, 2022 could be a fatal year for illiberalism in Europe.
(Translation by Davide Musso)