At the beginning of September 2021, a video report appeared on the website of the television news network Euronews with this headline: “Covid-19 divides Europe into two parts”. The author refers to the results of a study by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), which appeared in the same month. However, Euronews’ claim, that Europe is divided into two parts because of Covid-19, is mostly false. Covid-19 divides Europe into several geographic and non-geographic parts.
The ECFR’s study’s methodology
The politically independent think tank European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) published the study referred to by Euronews in September 2021 via its in-house website. In the policy brief, all the results of the study can be read, as well as the methodology. According to this, the surveys for the study took place in May and June 2021 and included around 16,200 respondents. The public opinion poll took place in the following 12 European countries: Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands. Each of these countries had about 1,000 participants, except for Germany and France, who had 3,000 each. For the analysis of the differences between Europe’s regions, Sweden and Denmark represented the “north”; Austria, France, Germany, and the Netherlands represented the “west”; Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria represented the “east”; and Italy, Portugal, and Spain represented the “south”. But the choice of participants is not balanced: About 2,000 participants represented the “north”, 8,000 the “west”, whereas the “south” and “east” were represented by 3,000 participants each. The ECFR should have considered this difference in numbers during their comparison of the south and east with the north and west. The numbers are only shown in percentage. It is not completely transparent how the authors came to these numbers. Hence it is unclear if they considered the unbalanced representation of regions. At the bottom of the study’s analysis, the ECFR added the following remark: “The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.” The authors of this study are Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard. Krastev works at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and Leonard is the director of the ECFR.
Europe’s regions’ facets analysed
The answers of the participants were on the one hand looked at from a geographical perspective and compared at a national level, as described above in four regions or in overall Europe. And on the other hand grouped in the following categories: one group, making up 30 percent in overall comparison, has been directly or indirectly affected by the disease. A second group, of 16 per cent, reports that they have not been affected by illness or bereavement in these ways, but that they have experienced serious economic hardship. And a third group has not been directly affected at all. This group makes up 54 percent.
Seen on a national level the numbers vary. The authors of the study summarise the result of these numbers as follows:
Dr. Jäggi is mostly confirming the study’s results
Dr. Christian J. Jäggi is a Swiss ethnologist, theologist and author. He recently published his new book “The Corona pandemic and its consequences – Economic, social and psychological effects” at Springer Gabler. This book shows a preliminary conclusion on the first 12 months of the Covid-19 pandemic in the various countries of the world, which has raised a multitude of questions from a non-medical perspective regarding economic, political or psychological consequences. Dr. Jäggi assessed the findings of the ECFR study from his expert point of view. He does not fully agree with these.
Trust in government helps along with hygiene measures
According to Dr. Jäggi, the geographical divisions in Europe (EU and non-EU) have historical causes. Social and economic differences also have an impact (North-South or West-East). In some countries, the population feels more affinity with the government, for example in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, some Scandinavian countries and Great Britain – regardless of whether the governments have adopted hard, moderate or soft Covid-19 measures. Dr. Jäggi points out there was more resistance in countries with rather low trust in the government. In countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, it was more common to see that the stronger populists reacted quite helplessly to Covid-19. He sums up:
“In this sense, the differences would be similar to the refugee crisis, which was simply managed more strongly by populist governments.”
Another finding of the ECFR is the following: “Economic victims are more likely than others to feel that the restrictions were too severe, and they are more sceptical of their governments’ intentions behind the closures.”
Dr. Jäggi says it would not be empirically true that those that were economically impacted by the measures tended to be more critical of the government and the measures than the others. Job losses and lockdown consequences for businesses were quite well cushioned by state aid and social insurance in most countries.
The study’s authors elaborate their hypothesis further by saying: “When it comes to assessing the main motivation behind restrictions, the data show that people who have been affected by illness or bereavement, and those who feel they have not been affected at all, trust that lockdowns were mainly meant to help limit the spread of the virus.” Seeing these numbers the ECFR’s conclusion seems comprehensible: 45 percent of the economically impacted, 39 percent of those who suffered illness or bereavement and 32 percent of those indicating that they have been unaffected are questioning their government’s intentions.
Results as diverse as Europe
Another argument of the ECFR regarding their claim is: “Europeans are divided about what they think are the governments’ motives for the restrictions: The trusting have confidence in governments; the suspicious believe that those in power want to cover up failures; the accusing believe that governments are trying to increase their control over people.” The fourth finding of the study was: “A split is emerging between those who believe that in the context of the pandemic the greatest threat to their freedom comes from governments, on the one hand, those who fear the behaviour of their fellow citizens, on the other.” In both cases of the above-mentioned hypotheses, the authors of the study viewed the results once as a total Europe and secondly differentiated the numbers nationally. In both cases, the opinions of nations vary, but there is no binary geographical divide visible as it is claimed by Euronews.
Looking at the ECFR’s study it becomes clear that the regional divide is just one of many aspects of the various ways in which people have been affected by the pandemic. The study tries to illuminate the different perspectives within many countries. Seen that the study looked at both geographical and societal differences, leaves it as a matter of interpretation. Europe is according to the study’s results either divided into two parts (the south and east or the north and west) or into three parts if you look at it from the level of being affected by Covid-19: The directly or indirectly affected by the disease, those who have experienced serious economic hardship and those that were not directly affected at all.
The claim “Covid-19 would divide Europe into two parts” is mostly false. According to Dr. Jäggi’s knowledge, it is often put too simply. The claim should read correctly: Covid-19 divides Europe into several parts. Considering the fact that the study itself speaks of divides (“Europe’s invisible divides: How covid-19 is polarising European politics”), confirms that the topic is much more comprehensive than Euronews’ claim suggests.
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RESEARCH | ARTICLE © Anna Budde and Julia Schneider, Jade University of Applied Sciences Wilhelmshaven, Germany