The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Europe has fallen into recession again. Its leaders should be nervous.

A passenger walks at the Brussels international airport on Wednesday. (Yves Herman/Reuters)
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European economies have lapsed into recession again as lockdowns and other pandemic-fighting measures further suppress economic activity. With voters’ patience running thin, this might be the last chance establishment governments have to avoid a populist surge.

Most countries in the European Union have experienced similar political responses to the pandemic and its economic devastation. Most leaders and their parties initially saw their poll numbers go up in what seemed to be an E.U. version of the “rally round the flag” effect often observed in the United States in times of crisis. This increased standing continued throughout last summer, as E.U. economies emerged from lockdowns.

Voters held to their faith as the continent went through a second wave of covid-19 cases in the fall and winter. Cases peaked in November and started to decline. It looked as if governments had again managed a crisis acceptably under the circumstances.

Public perception started to change, however, when cases began rising again. Country after country imposed more lockdowns, and the rocky rollout of Europe’s coordinated vaccination program didn’t help. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom — freed from E.U. policies after Brexit — managed one of the world’s most successful vaccine rollouts, even as it suffered under a draconian set of lockdown requirements, the nation’s third. Looking across the English Channel at their former E.U. comrades thriving helped sour many Europeans’ moods.

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The result is likely what explains a divergence in the polls. Britons now view British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had seen his approval ratings tumble as the pandemic raged, more positively than negatively. His Conservative Party, which had been running even with the opposition Labour Party on Christmas Day, now leads its leftist foe by nine points in the Politico polling average. Meanwhile, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, which led the second-place Greens by 17 points as late as January, has lost nearly a third of its support in the polling average and now trails the Greens as Germany prepares for elections in September.

Polling results elsewhere in Europe aren’t as stark as Germany’s, but they are also not encouraging for ruling parties. French President Emmanuel Macron’s approval rating has dropped six points since January to 37 percent. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babic’s ANO Party has lost nearly a quarter of its support since last May, and support for two outsider groups — the right-populist SPD and the left-populist Pirates and Mayors coalition — has risen. Ruling parties in hard-hit Hungary and Poland have seen their poll ratings decline, while in other hard-hit countries such as Italy and Spain, polls are relatively stable.

That stability likely won’t last if E.U. governments don’t reopen their nations by winter. Prior economic crises, such as the Great Depression and the Great Recession of 2008, often show support for governments early on but rapid desertion by the second or third year. In the Great Depression, this led to the landslide election of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democrats in 1932 and the election of left-leaning governments in France, Canada, New Zealand and Scandinavia. Weak democracies fell completely, with Germany’s turn to Adolf Hitler being the most prominent example.

The 2008 crisis also upended politics in some of the hardest-hit European countries, such as Ireland, Greece and Spain, and increased support for populist parties elsewhere. The dramatic surge after 2010 of both Scottish and English nationalism, reflected in the rise of the Scottish Nationalist Party and Brexit, are directly attributable to mismanagement of the economic crisis and erosion of public confidence in the old elites.

History strongly suggests something similar will happen across Europe if the continent suffers a fourth wave. People will start to lose faith in leaders who can promise nothing other than patience and lockdowns. They will look to new faces who promise a new approach. And it won’t matter if those approaches may not pass muster with elite consensus; indeed, that would likely be a plus, politically. If those who failed don’t like it, it must be worth trying.

This movement would be a boon for Europe’s populists. Countries are already seeing support for left- and right-wing populist parties holding steady or rising. Those parties would be the natural beneficiaries of anger toward the unending crisis. In Ireland, that could mean the party once tied to the terrorist Irish Republican Army, Sinn Fein, would likely form the next government. In Italy, such support would probably flow to a party descended from fascists, the Brothers of Italy, which is the only major party outside the technocratic government running the country. Belgium, one of the hardest-hit nations and home to the E.U. administrative capital of Brussels, is already seeing a rise in support for the far-right Vlaams Belang and the outwardly Marxist Workers’ Party. Imagine if the seat of the European Union is governed by anti-E.U. parties.

Europe may continue to move slowly toward recovery. If that turn isn’t a return to pre-pandemic life, however, our cross-Atlantic allies are in for very rocky times.

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