The COVID-19 pandemic represents a huge health and safety crisis to all people around the world. Since the disease was first confirmed in Italy in late January, the coronavirus has been spreading rapidly and aggressively in Europe. European countries’ initially slow response to the outbreak caused the continent to become the planet’s coronavirus hot zone. On 13 March 2020, as the number of new reported cases surpassed those in China and doubled every several days, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified Europe as the new “epicenter” of coronavirus pandemic. According to the data collected by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), as of 11 July 2020, 1,578,229 cases (about 15% of all world cases) of coronavirus disease have been reported in the EU countries and the UK, including 179,168 deaths (about 35% of all world deaths). Although the number of reported cases and the mortality rate vary in European countries, the COVID-19 pandemic is posing an unprecedented threat to the European Union and all EU member states.
During the coronavirus pandemic, national borders were closed, restrictions on nonessential movements were imposed, a state of emergency in many countries was introduced, millions of people were in lockdown, and people are facing various challenges in their work activities and daily lives. Just like the pandemic has greatly changed the fabric of life, it also shows the potential to transform European politics in profound ways. One of the concerns is the resurgence of neo-nationalism during the time of crisis. As Stephen Walt wrote, “the pandemic will strengthen the state and reinforce nationalism. Governments of all types will adopt emergency measures to manage the crisis”.Footnote 2 Has the pandemic crisis exacerbated neo-nationalism in Europe? Various symptoms of rising nationalism have been observed in European countries over the past months, in terms of renewed nationalist responses in the form of medical nationalism, everyday nationalism, and economic nationalism.
As the global pandemic spreads, the demand for life-saving medical supplies to fight the pandemic is unprecedented. In responding to the escalating public health crisis, a large number of European countries were spontaneously pursuing nationalistic policies. This involved taking a “my nation first” approach to compete against each other for essential health products and protective equipment, rather than working together to implement a Europe-wide coordinated strategy. As such, it escalated into a tide of “medical nationalism” in the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak, displaying a burgeoning spread of neo-nationalism that was already sweeping the European continent before the pandemic hit. Regional alliances have been fraying as a result of the growing uncertainties and fears.
Export protectionism has risen considerably since February as EU member states, one after another, moved to introduce trade prohibitions or restrictions on medical goods as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Global Trade Alter, as of May 1, 27 European countries have taken at least 30 actions to impose temporary export restrictions of medical supplies and medicines. Key items on the list of export controls include face masks, protective clothing, medical equipment, ventilators, shoves, chemicals, sanitation products, and other badly needed medical supplies. For instance, early in the crisis when Italy was one of the countries to be badly hit and needed a helping hand from the EU and other member states, little medical help was extended to the Italians in those first weeks. Rather, many of its European neighbors were in rush to hunt for medical supplies and impose export controls as concern about the crisis was mounting. France has requisitioned stocks of FFP2-type masks in early March and further expanded its list of drugs covered by export restrictions in April. On March 4, Germany banned the export and intra-EU transfer of medical protection gear such as breathing masks, medical gloves, and protective suits to ensure local needs. For these European countries, the coronavirus is not merely a health crisis, but has also become “a question of national security,” as German Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, warned. National governments must take responsibility, he emphasized, to ensure not only the security of their borders and their food supply, but also “our medical products and our medicines.”Footnote 3
Moreover, vaccine nationalism also has increasingly gained prominence as nation states are engaged in the chaotic race to manufacture and control coronavirus vaccines. Ideally, regional and global governance bodies should have more leverage to allocate and distribute the delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine when available, because “no one is safe until everyone is safe” amid this global pandemic. However, there is a widespread fear that the first country to successfully create the vaccine will likely impose export restrictions on it to ensure priority access for its local population. The distinction of self vs others can be highlighted and manipulated by national governments and politicians as people are desperate for scarce vaccine supplies amid the pandemic. In addition to medical goods, temporary-trade restrictions were even extended to some foodstuffs. This has resulted in nationalist calls to supply locals first and “eat patriotically”, creating a new wave of food nationalismFootnote 4 in Europe. For example, France’s Agriculture Minister declared “I am calling for food patriotism, for agricultural patriotism,” encouraging citizens to buy French cheese, strawberries, and tomatoes over foreign ones, even though these products may be pricier.Footnote 5 The Rural Economy Secretary of the UK endorsed the Scottish Government’s campaign to support dairy farming, and claimed that “I would encourage everyone in Scotland who can take part to support local farming and food production.”Footnote 6 It is largely understandable that national states may resort to a unilateral and selfish agenda to mitigate potential shortages in key supplies and protect their people when they had no clear ideas or plans to cope with the unknown crisis. However, a scramble for national interests will highly likely escalate into neo-nationalism, providing political opportunities for nativist nationalists who favor greater protectionism and want to “take back control”.
In classic political theory, nationhood is often considered as a precondition for personal security and social justice (Miller 1997, ch.4). Nation states are supposed to “provide every citizen with a certain level of protection against the contingencies of life” (Miller 2008). Therefore, there are some legal provisions enshrined in European treaties that permit such measures. However, when national governments insist on a protectionist approach, far-right nationalists will capitalize on this momentum to advocate a form of “me first” nationalism that pits one nation against another in the pursuit of local interests and to protect their own nationals. This will further legitimize their radical proposals to close borders, deport immigrants, and turn away from international organizations, creating momentum toward neo-nationalism. Therefore, concerns have been raised regarding whether EU member states that recover from the pandemic will become more tribal, more narrowly minded, and more anti-regionalization.
To avoid ineffective nationalistic responses and prevent a new wave of neo-nationalism, the EU has called for regional solidarity by negotiating with member states to unblock export restrictions and mobilizing resources to help hot-spot countries. For instance, in an attempt to ensure that medical equipment continues to circulate within the EU, the European Commission, Germany, and France have negotiated to end the intra-European export restrictions on medical supplies. Italy and Spain have now received considerable medical assistance via the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and from several EU member states. For example, Germany sent 1 million face masks to Italy; Estonia also donated €100,000 and 30,000 masks to Italy. According to the information released by European Solidarity Tracker, Italy now has become one of the top beneficiaries of pan-European support.Footnote 7 It is predicted that a more coordinated, trusted European-level governance system to ensure the appropriate flow of medical supplies and distributions will help mitigate the “pandemic of nationalism”. Paradoxically, while the European Union tried to seek solidarity and had discouraged the member states from implementing restrictive measures in response to the crisis, it also introduced an EU-wide ban to limit exports of certain medical products to destinations outside the bloc, in a bid to keep sufficient supplies within the EU.
The crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown policies taken to curb the virus spread present an unprecedented challenge to the world economy. The apparent lack of solidarity among EU member states during the early days of the crisis nearly brought Europe’s single market to a standstill and fueled the rise of economic nationalism after Europe has already borne the brunt of the European debt crisis and immigration crisis for years. According to the data published by Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, the bloc suffered its sharpest decline in more than a decade since the 2008 financial crisis, with a decrease of the GDP by 3.6% in the Euro-zone during the first quarter of 2020.Footnote 8 Even worse, Europe is predicting a record fall in its GDP and drastically revised the unemployment rate upward this year as the disease continues to disrupt international trade and investment flows. However, the pandemic’s economic impact across Europe has been asymmetric. Among the member states for which data are available, the highest decline in GDP in Europe was experienced by France and Italy (both − 5.3%) as well as by Spain and Slovakia (both − 5.2%). How have European countries responded? At a time of growing protectionism, the COVID-19 tends to further push Europe toward a more nationalistic response economically.
The pandemic is a serious threat to the viability and integrity of the multilateral trading system. Many Europeanists are used to and appreciative of open borders and a single market. However, the coronavirus outbreak offers an excuse to close borders and end the freedom of movement—a longstanding demand of neo-nationalists. In early March, when Italy first became the epicenter of the outbreak, many European countries have reacted with protectionist measures. At least half of the Schengen States, in rapid succession, rushed to reintroduce border closures of some kind at their borders. As the disease continued to spread, more than a dozen of European countries, together with the bloc as a whole, have imposed travel bans and border controls. At the same time, many nationalist parties and politicians (including those of Hungary, Italy, and Poland) seized the opportunity presented by the pandemic scare to aggressively push their border-control agenda. To be sure, as an essential part of emergency governance, temporary restrictive measures on movement—internationally and within countries—are necessary to slow down the spread of the disease and effectively save lives. However, chaotic border closures in every-nation-for-itself fashion may also undermine the economies and could severely disrupt the flow of trade and investment, especially for a previously borderless free-market zone. Moreover, it is accompanied by signs of a strong resurgence in protectionism. Some European countries have started to switch their industrial policies to place more emphasis on national self-sufficiency, safeguard strategically important industries against foreign take-over, and implement stronger screening of foreign investment.Footnote 9 Such a move leads to a growing concern that the COVID-19 crisis may create a world that will be less open, less free, and less prosperous, reinforcing the existing trend towards the rise of economic nationalism in Europe and damaging the already fragile world economic system.
The coronavirus pandemic has also sparked a firestorm of nationalism in financial areas. To rescue the hardest-hit member states as well as to finance recovery from the economic recession, the EU proposed to use fiscal instruments of joint borrowing and debt-sharing. Calls were made for the creation of the so-called “corona bonds” which will mutualize risk across all Euro-zone members and organize them to share the burden of common debts. Such a plan, however, must gain unanimous backing of all 27-member states and needs to be approved by national leaders and their parliaments. A similar notion of “Eurobonds” had been previously raised during the 2008 financial crisis, but wealthier countries in northern Europe considered collective debts to be unfair and therefore rejected the plan. This time, some countries again prioritized national concerns over a unified response even when the coronavirus has so fundamentally damaged the bloc’s economy. This is in part caused by the very fact that the pandemic has disproportionately affected the European south much more than the continent’s wealthy north. Consequently, disagreement emerged amid the deep North–South divide. Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece strongly demanded the common debt instrument, while Netherlands, Germany, Finland, and Austria were adamantly opposed to any kind of coronavirus-related debt mutualization. Both sides are facing various attacks by populist nationalist politicians at home. For instance, in Germany, Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), which is now the third-largest party in the German Parliament, has bluntly rejected the idea of corona bonds by saying that the coronavirus cannot “justify that German taxpayers are bled for the debt of the whole EU.”Footnote 10 Although leaders of Germany and France have recently agreed to support the EU’s pandemic recovery fund, there will still be some tough negotiations among EU member states and the potential for a lengthy approval process by individual countries. Since a joint debt will vest greater power and authority in the EU by giving it more of the semblance of a central government,Footnote 11 such an EU-level recovery plan may further exacerbate the Eurosceptic nationalist politics. For example, in Italy, the League Party, the populist anti-EU far-right party, has launched an aggressive campaign against the proposal of Italy accepting money from the EU’s crisis bonds.
Economic nationalism can be understood as economic activities that “are and should be subordinate to the goal of state building and the interests of the state” (Gilpin 1987: 31). The resurgence of economic nationalism was usually a product of economic crises, nationalist movements, and enlarged states (Pryke 2012). It often creates political hierarchy between “my nation” and other nations in the pursuance of national economic interests. In a more protectionist post-COVID environment, Europe will face a political–economic dilemma. On one hand, it has to scale up its efforts in adopting more ambitious financial measures to rescue and stimulate the regional economy. On the other hand, it must prepare to see the rise of Eurosceptic populism and nationalist movements caused by an empowered EU and the new common debts.
The crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic has also led to an increase in acts and displays of everyday nationalism in European countries. Everyday nationalism is a new approach to observe and study nationalism by focusing particularly on everyday routines and lived experiences with ethnic or nationalist content (Goode et al. 2020: 2–3). Following the constructivist turn, it is posited that everyday nationalism does not regard people as mere passive receptacles of top–down nationalist messages, but also active agents in producing, manipulating, and practicing their own version of nationalism (Goode and Stroup 2015; Fox and Van Ginderachter 2018). Although the practices of everyday nationalism are more often observed in settled times (Bonikowski 2016), the pandemic crisis provides an unsettled environment in which people perform daily nationalist responses as their everyday lives have been profoundly changed by various uncertainties.
The COVID-19 outbreak has impacted every aspect of the society, prompting a resurgence of nationalist and xenophobic sentiments among some native people.Footnote 12 As the coronavirus sweeps through Europe, there have been multiple reports of incidents of racism, xenophobia, discrimination, and intolerance directed against certain national or ethnic communities linked to the COVID-19 pandemic in most European countries. It started with verbal and physical attacks targeted at Chinese nationals and those perceived to be of Chinese or Asian origin, which then expanded beyond East Asian populations to asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants, and foreigners in general. A survey conducted with 300 persons of Chinese background in The Netherlands in February 2020 showed that nearly half of respondents had experienced racist and xenophobic incidents of some kind since the outbreak of the disease.Footnote 13 According to the report published by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), people with Asian faces in Denmark, Italy, France, Germany, Finland, and Estonia have experienced multiple forms of xenophobia and discrimination connected with COVID-19, involving discriminatory incidents such as name-calling, inappropriate staring, being overtly distanced, and in most severe cases, physical violence. For example, in France, a young man of Chinese origin was physically attacked when leaving a night club, and a Vietnamese girl was racially insulted and punched when she was returning from school.Footnote 14 Meanwhile, a string of complaints emerged about racial discrimination targeting members of the Asian diaspora in gaining access to goods and services, including denial of access to health services, education, and housing.Footnote 15 Amnesty International warned that “fake news, irresponsible statements by political leaders, incomprehensible decisions by local governors and the obsessive focus of the media on coronavirus” had led to a “shameful wave of Sinophobia.”Footnote 16 Besides, there is evidence of xenophobic rumors blaming Muslims, Jews, Roma, and refugees for hosting the virus, even culminating in the extreme nationalists advocating for social exclusion.Footnote 17 The pandemic crisis creates fear. Fear makes people more likely to develop nativist attitudes and adopt some form of “othering” in their daily interactions, providing a key ingredient for everyday nationalism to thrive.
The COVID-19 crisis further exacerbated the existing patterns of racism, nativism, and nationalism that have long been championed by right-wing populists. Narratives about crises reinforce social and pollical cleavages (Cross 2017). Nationalist politicians and radical-right parties across Europe have been opportunistic to use the outbreak to further discriminate and reiterate their calls for tougher policies on immigration and regionalization. For example, Italy’s far-right politician Matteo Salvini, leader of the League Party, has erroneously linked the emergence and spread of the virus to African asylum seekers who have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe and urged the hardest anti-migrant policy.Footnote 18 Likewise, the Hungarian populist leader Viktor Orban was among the first to depict the coronavirus as “spreading among foreigners,” declare states of emergency, ban the entry of all non-nationals, and suspend transit zone camps for asylum seekers. Far-right politicians in France, Germany, Spain, Poland, and Greece took similar steps to seize on opportunities presented by the pandemic to augment their voice and push nationalist agendas.Footnote 19 In fact, these nationalist policy responses have disproportionately affected the daily life of marginalized groups and ethnic minorities, increasing their susceptibility to experiencing structural inequality. For instance, Roma minorities in Bulgaria and Slovakia were stigmatized by populist politicians for causing this pandemic and faced targeted testing and racial discrimination when lockdownsFootnote 20 were implemented. According to Amnesty International’s investigations, over 50,000 Roma citizens who are under compulsory quarantine in Bulgaria suffered severe food shortages and limited access to water and basic sanitation.Footnote 21 As a result, the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer merely a public health crisis, but also provides a new convenient reason for the national-populists and Eurosceptics to capitalize on public fear and confusion so as to create self-other distinction and take nativist control. As Nigel Farage, leader of the far-right party in the UK, twittered, “We are all nationalists now.” The anti-immigration stances and hate speeches (especially those on social media) by populist politicians will in turn contribute to a sharp increase in extremist and nationalist attitudes among the nativist public. The convergence of nativism and populism turns into an everyday form of neo-nationalism.