Will COVID-19 Mark the End of European Liberalism?

Will COVID-19 Mark the End of European Liberalism?

Jamie Martin
Jamie Martin
8 min read

Understandably, given its potential for large scale loss of life and severe economic disruption, coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic has so far focused on its short-term health and economic impact. Eventually, however, we will have to start thinking about the longer-term repercussions of the virus—particularly its political fall-out. According to the social science literature, there appears to be a positive correlation between the prevalence of disease and an increase in authoritarian-nationalist political views.1 This could have important ramifications in continental Europe, where several of the countries at the epicentre of the outbreak were already dealing with the rise of authoritarian-nationalist opposition parties and have upcoming elections. The possibility of the EU’s three largest economies (Germany, France, and Italy) shifting toward authoritarian-nationalist politics, and upending the liberal settlement of the world’s biggest economic block, means the political fall-out from COVID-19 could influence events around the world for decades to come.

This conjecture is built on two foundations. The first is the evidence that greater prevalence of disease increases authoritarian-nationalist politics in individuals and countries. The second is the explanation of how this occurs, which is that higher disease prevalence leads to greater “disgust sensitivity,” the psychological term for a stronger tendency to experience disgust, which acts as a negative moderating influence on personality traits that predict liberal political views. If this analysis is accurate, it looks likely that the COVID-19 pandemic will cause a rise in authoritarian-nationalism.

The evidence linking “pathogen risk” (the psychological term for an increased likelihood of dangerous disease) and authoritarian-nationalist views concerns both short- and long-term differences in ideology, across countries and cultures. A 2013 study that aimed to review the existing literature found the data “provide empirical substantiation for the hypothesis that societal differences in authoritarian governance may result, in part, from ecological variation in the prevalence of disease-causing parasites.” This correlation holds among individuals in some 30 countries, and in modern as well as isolated hunter-gatherer societies. Importantly, priming people with pathogen threat increased their authoritarian-nationalist tendencies immediately (see here and here).

Like most observations of human behaviour, the link between greater disease risk and authoritarian-nationalism makes more sense when put into an evolutionary context. Across the millennia in which the evolutionary influences on human nature took effect, there was what scientists have called an “opportunity/parasite trade-off” to changing social norms and interaction with outside groups. New practices, or interaction with outsiders, might mean innovation and trade. But they could also mean ending traditional practices that maintained cleanliness and being exposed to new diseases. It is therefore logical that we would have developed a response to higher disease risk that included becoming more politically conservative.

It appears that in societies and individuals, the increased risk of disease can have an impact on the personality traits (mapped to the five-factor model of human personality) that influence our political views. At times of high disease risk, our heightened disgust dials down “openness to experience,” which is positively correlated with political liberalism and negatively with authoritarian-nationalism (this relationship appears to be true for overall ideology, attitudes to individual political issues, and party preferences). Historic pathogen risk predicts countries’ political authoritarianism and social conformity. Even in the short-term, a sudden increase in disease risk is likely to turn the political tide away from liberalism towards authoritarian-nationalism.

This disease risk/liberalism trade-off is helpful when it comes to explaining the consistent victories of liberal politics, particularly in Europe. A healthier, wealthier Europe has embraced a more open politics (the EU single market, the Schengen open border zone, pluralist democracy, and liberal individualism). And the rest of the world, at least the richer parts with traditionally lower pathogen risk, has followed a similar pattern. This combination of an ever-decreasing threat and ever-increasing liberalism, buttressed by other complimentary trends (for example, higher urbanisation and education levels), has led the conservative author Ed West in Small Men on the Wrong Side of History to bemoan the fact that “the future appears progressive and [conservatives’] defeat is inevitable, part of an ‘arc of history’ that leads irrevocably to a progressive utopia in which they’re left in the dustbin.”

Indeed, some people on Twitter have argued that COVID-19 might even contribute to this ‘arc of history’ by disproportionately killing off older voters. Such people also argue that conservative political leaders (such as Scott Morrison in Australia, Donald Trump in America, and Boris Johnson in the UK) might suffer politically from an “incumbency effect”—they will be punished for being in office when the virus struck, regardless of how well or badly they handle the crisis (although the people making this prediction all think they’ve handled it badly).

But social science suggests the opposite, at least in the medium-to-long term: The most likely political fall-out from the pandemic will be an increase in authoritarian-nationalism. That was broadly what happened after the Spanish flu broke out in 1918 — 20.

That pandemic was one of the worst in history, killing an estimated 50 million people. Coming as it did at the end of the First World War, and coinciding with tumultuous events ranging from the Russian Revolution to hyperinflation in Weimar Germany, its political impact is hard to isolate. But in the years that followed, America (having suffered 675,000 flu deaths) adopted a policy of international isolationism and higher tariffs, the far Right began to rise in Europe, and fascism emerged in a Japan ravaged by the disease. Though Britain elected its first Labour government in 1924, the Liberal party and its associated ideology vanished so quickly that by 1935 George Dangerfield was able to write a book called The Strange Death of Liberal England. The Spanish flu pandemic coincided with a rapid turn away from a liberal global order towards authoritarian-nationalism.

Italy is probably the best place to start in considering how the COVID-19 pandemic might change European and global politics. Italy has already felt the full force of political turmoil in recent years, with its 2018 general election seeing the populist Right win the most seats and the populist Left win the most votes. The Italians’ sense of getting a bad deal from the EU, after decades of economic stagnation and bearing the brunt of the migration crisis, has been aggravated by the emerging perception that its EU allies have “abandoned” it during its COVID-19 hour of need. The leader of its populist Right, Matteo Salvini, has seized the opportunity to push authoritarian-nationalist rhetoric. He has already used the virus outbreak to call for tighter borders, and tweeted: “When Europe has been in need, Italy has always given… Now that we are asking for help, all the [other] countries are starting to close their frontiers.” The reaction from ordinary Italians is hard to judge, but it is the Italian Il Tricolore, not the EU flag, that gets flown in the skies by its air force, and its own national anthem that is the subject of nationally coordinated balcony singing, not Europe’s ‘Ode to Joy.’ This undercurrent could provide fertile ground for Salvini’s campaigning in a future election that could occur at any time.

Turning from the eurozone’s third-largest economy to its second, France was already facing a populist surge ahead of its 2022 presidential election. Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-wing Rassemblement National, has begun to lead in first-round opinion polls as Macron’s popularity has crumbled following the gilets jaunes protests. She was already pitching her campaign as an end to violence and chaos, and around “patriotism,” even before the pandemic arrived. Since the COVID-19 outbreak she has, like Salvini, used it as an opportunity to call for an end to the EU’s system of open borders between countries.

Even in Europe’s dominant economy and the EU’s lynchpin member, Germany, there appears to be a high risk of post-COVID-19 political disruption. The right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has been growing in popularity in recent elections, especially in the poorer east. With an election due in October 2021, the ruling Christian Democratic Union party has already been thrown into disarray at state level by the AfD’s rise, causing the resignation of the party’s leader and presumptive nominee for chancellor. With the AfD polling around 15 percent, the party’s leader in the German parliament has argued that the COVID-19 pandemic was caused by “the dogma of open borders.” Goldman Sachs has echoed Chancellor Merkle in estimating that 70 percent of Germans may catch the virus. The impact of a national and global lockdown is likely to be especially severe on an export-driven economy with a strong dependence on global supply lines and pan-European trade.

The primary and secondary economic effects of the virus could also provide fertile ground for Europe’s authoritarian-nationalists. Populists have historically capitalised on economic downturns, particularly the type of depressions that will likely occur in the countries and continents hit hardest by the virus. In Sweden, the right-wing Sweden Democrats  already lead in the polls ahead of the 2022 general election, and in Greece (where an election is due in 2023) populists have enjoyed electoral success on the back of anti-EU sentiment for nearly a decade. Even in countries where the virus has not yet taken hold as severely as in Italy, the higher pathogen risk and likely economic impact of the pandemic mean that nationalist parties will find a favourable electoral climate in the coming years.

In countries like the UK, the US, and Australia, there is little sign that electorates will punish conservative incumbents. Donald Trump, despite widespread criticism of his handling of the crisis, has steady approval ratings (and is already using the virus to argue for lower immigration); Boris Johnson’s personal approval ratings are holding up and his party’s poll ratings have never been higher; and Scott Morrison has regained his lead on who Australians see as the best prime minister among party leaders.

These anglosphere countries, and Asian liberal democracies such as Japan and South Korea, may drift in a more authoritarian-nationalist direction, but lack the tinderbox context of continental Europe. It is there that we find the volatile combination of increased disease risk (augmented by its negative economic effects) with rising authoritarian-nationalist opposition parties. What might the ramifications be for Europe, and the world?

In the EU, the least dramatic scenario is that liberal, integrationist leaders like Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel will be forced to tread lightly and even go into reverse on further European integration. Come election time, the increasing popularity of nationalist parties will force more mainstream parties into awkward and potentially unworkable coalitions, creating an even bigger opportunity for the nationalists in the next round of elections in the mid-to-late 2020s.

The next step could be the end of the EU’s open border Schengen zone, and reduced economic coordination and adherence to budget rules in the eurozone. Following on so soon from Brexit, that could be a huge challenge to the future of the EU.

An even greater challenge would be Italy or France leaving or demanding wholesale reform of the eurozone or single market. While the EU could probably survive a Greek exit, and Germany is unlikely to countenance leaving, the EU would face an existential threat if its second- or third-largest economy was to leave or opt out of various integrationist arrangements. While Marine Le Pen has rowed back on her earlier position of demanding “Frexit,” she still calls for “control of immigration, economic patriotism, [and] rational and reasonable protectionism.” Salvini’s League is even more eurosceptic–it renewed its campaign for Italy to abandon the euro in December 2019, reversing its more moderate position while in government.

For now, politicians and voters are focusing on minimising the terrible human toll of COVID-19. But understanding the social science literature—which tells us that increased pathogen risk is likely to shift voters toward authoritarian-nationalism—and taking into account the fragile state of some of Europe’s biggest economies, suggests that the political fall-out from the pandemic could be the not-so-strange death of liberal Europe. This would be an impact felt for decades to come.


1 In this essay I will for ease use “authoritarian-nationalist” to mean hostility to immigration, social conservatism, and sympathy for protectionist economic policies, and “liberal” to mean in favour of open markets, high immigration, and social permissiveness.

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Jamie Martin

Jamie Martin is a former Special Adviser to the UK Government. He tweets @jamieamartin1