LONDON – Most of the “geopolitical” threats, real or confected, that capture headlines in the West nowadays are exogenous – emanating from China, Russia, Iran, and so forth. But others lie within the world’s democracies. Among these are the US Republican Party’s embrace of Trumpian authoritarianism, which is eroding the country’s democracy, and the possibility that new unanticipated variants of populism will take hold around the world.
One new variant of populism might involve hostility toward both costly green policies and vaccination against COVID-19. And it would be driven by a combination of genuine concerns about pocketbook issues and the kinds of conspiratorial lunacy that thrive on the internet.
Anti-green populism is particularly likely to flourish in the more fossil fuel-dependent economies of Central and Eastern Europe, in response to the European Union’s new strategy for reducing greenhouse gases by 55% by 2030. Indeed, the so-called Fit for 55 plan would seem to call for the wholesale remodeling of these economies.
Consider Poland, which generates 70% of its energy from coal and receives additional supplies through a gas pipeline from Russia. Coal is especially abundant in southern Poland, where it is used to fuel giant power stations that provide industry with cheap electricity.
If it is to meet EU emissions targets, Poland is going to have to decarbonize more extensively and rapidly than anyone else. The government recently set an ambitious goal of reducing the proportion of coal in the country’s energy mix from 70% to 11% by 2040. But that will have massive implications for mining, which employs some 100,000 heavily unionized and politically influential workers.
Moreover, with little wind or sunshine in winter, Poland is ill suited for renewable-energy deployment. Instead, it has set its sights on “solutions” like nuclear power and the “Baltic Pipe” gas pipeline – subsidized by the European Commission to the tune of €215 million ($251 million) – to import gas from Norway via Denmark.
But neither of these options has gone down well in Germany. If Poland’s efforts to align with EU policy put it at loggerheads with key neighbors and trade partners, it will be damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. The conditions are set for a thriving anti-green populism.
Yet this populist threat is hardly limited to Central and Eastern Europe. Opposition to climate action could just as easily spread to Europe’s more established democracies if costly items like air source heat pumps and smart meters are rendered technologically redundant, or if vehicles with internal combustion engines are forced off the road by government fiat.
In fact, France was briefly the epicenter of an anti-green backlash in Europe, with the rambunctious gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protests that began in 2018. Angry citizens who rely on cars to get around their country districts eventually forced President Emmanuel Macron to rescind a new tax on diesel fuel. They had a point, considering that the infrastructure for more expensive electric vehicles simply does not exist in France (or anywhere else).
More recently, a significant share of this cohort seems to have joined with militant anti-vaxxers (many of them on the far right) who have adopted various libertarian poses propagated on the internet. This confluence of grievance may have traction, especially as more conventional populist movements have begun to take a battering, notably in Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, and elsewhere. People have grown weary of authoritarianism, corruption, and divisiveness during the pandemic – a crisis that was grossly mishandled by populist governments, in particular. The likes of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán are the elite, not some anti-systemic opposition to it.
Opposition to vaccination is as old as inoculation itself. The English city of Leicester used to be a hotbed of it. In 1885, 100,000 people there attended an anti-vaccination rally, complete with a child’s coffin and an effigy of Edward Jenner, the pioneer of smallpox vaccination. Such movements were often based on a fusion of fundamentalist Christianity (which opposed interference in God’s work) and suspicion of powers being arrogated by the modern state, which made vaccination mandatory for infants or children entering school.
The only unique contribution of our current age is the role of social media in amplifying the views of crank medics and scientists, as happened after The Lancet published (and then retracted) Andrew Wakefield’s false claims that there is a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism.
Nowadays, any online search of vaccines immediately reveals a disproportionate number of anti-vaccination sites, as well as pernicious guff claiming that the barring of unvaccinated youth from nightclubs is akin to Jews being sent to Auschwitz. Versions of that analogy have long appeared in the British Daily Telegraph, courtesy of its dogmatically libertarian commentators, who have made common cause with the likes of the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), Italy’s homegrown fascist movement. Any enemy of the EU is their best friend by default. Although the overwhelming majority of Italians support the government’s green pass initiative, the Fratelli’s leader, Giorgia Meloni, loudly does not.
In the homeland of Louis Pasteur, such militants are particularly exercised by the government’s vaccine-passport rules, which exclude the unvaccinated from concerts, cinemas, museums, swimming pools, theaters, and restaurants where 50 people or more are gathered. More trouble may ensue if nurses (only 50-58% of whom are vaccinated) are prevented from working until they receive two doses; or if railway workers raise objections about having to enforce vaccine-passport rules on local and commuter trains. No job should involve the risk of being headbutted or punched in the face.
It was perhaps inevitable that the parasitic populist right would latch onto these issues. Although Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally party has typically hedged her bets, her former right-hand man, Florian Philipott, was very vocal at the biggest of the many anti-vaccine rallies in July. These are growing in size by the month, with 200,000 attending the first one in August. This “movement” flourishes among the semi-educated in small towns and in cities like Marseille, where obdurate pastis guzzlers and religious immigrant communities also contribute to its ranks.
However, it is worth stressing that 62% of the silent majority in France supports vaccine passports, and 70% want all hospital and care-home workers to be fully vaccinated. That is probably why Macron has stuck to his guns: he hopes that rationality will prevail and that any increase in economic activity will benefit his campaign in 2022. Let’s hope he is right.
Still, one can see the outlines of an emerging political fusion between irrationality and pocketbook issues. As anti-vaxxers and anti-greens join forces, any number of stray populist demagogues might seek to lead such a movement. That underscores the importance of UN initiatives such as Team Halo, which has brought together scientists to publicize the importance of vaccines, especially on social media platforms.
Michael Burleigh, a senior fellow at LSE Ideas, is the author, most recently, of Populism: Before and After the Pandemic (Hurst 2021).
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.
Contributed by Michael Burleigh