Extremism in the EU: Social Ramifications of COVID-19

25 June, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has erupted a void in both the EU and the US that extremists are clamoring to fill. Conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, anti-vaxxers, and anti-refugee groups alike have become extraordinarily vocal during the pandemic and have used the crisis to push their political agendas while the world is seized with uncertainty and trauma. Across Europe, the rumors of 5G wireless technology causing coronavirus have sparked arson attacks on the telecommunication masts while right-wing extremists on Telegram in Germany have doubled their followers. By exploiting community politics, extremists are able to take a better hold of vulnerable groups and further their influence.

The Role of Community Politics

Many of the extremist groups tried to amass such a following after the 2016 presidential election in the United States, but did not enjoy the amount of success they are seeing now. In a time when the majority of the world is particularly vulnerable, extremists have begun using virus-related themes on social media, citing anyone from President Trump himself to India’s nationalist ruling party. In the COVID-19 crisis, similar to other crises, the most severe impacts are the result of disruptions to essential services. These disruptions leave a void that affects society’s most vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and impoverished, and oftentimes social movements or other social actors will fill this void. This is where extremists capitalize.

Extremists have a long-held habit of using crises to exploit community politics, meaning the political action that supports the basic needs and concerns of residents, by stepping in to aid vulnerable groups that are the most affected by crisis disruptions. By many means, extremists tend to benefit from crises due to the positive relationship between perceived threats – which are increased by crises – and authoritarian attitudes. When faced with uncertainty and trauma, many people are more likely to engage with extremists who paint themselves as bearers of stability.  Take the Nazi party as an example, which gained popularity and support when Germany was faced with political instability and hyperinflation in the early 1920s. However, the Nazis only had 2.6 percent of the vote when Germany was stable again in 1928, and it was only years later that they re-gained the majority after the Great Depression. Community politics are essential for extremist movements, transforming their aggressive narratives into helping hands.

For example, young members of the ‘National Democratic Party of Germany’ have used the coronavirus pandemic to help pensioners with their grocery shopping, donate to animal shelters, and assist the homeless. Another small neo-Nazi group, ‘Der Dritte Weg’, has been promoting their conspiracies about the origins and purpose of the coronavirus by tying them with offers of neighborhood aid.

To civil rights advocates, this is no surprise. Many have been warning for months that the coronavirus pandemic provides fertile breeding ground for extremist groups to grow their followers, particularly neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups who have been actively vying for society to collapse. Many of these groups in the European Union are now using the tactics they have spent years learning from their U.S. counterparts, meaning that they are now in need of less outside help than before. Among some of their key messages are falsehoods such as statements that migrants are the cause of coronavirus, rallying support for President Trump’s border wall, and spreading antagonism against the EU. Particularly in Italy, Greece, and Spain, right-wing extremists have been especially vocal about reclaiming their power from the EU, spreading Russian disinformation campaigns aimed at weakening support for the EU’s COVID-19 response. A lot of the messages from these nations draw upon leftover hatred and resentment from how the EU treated their nations during the 2008 financial crisis.

Furthermore, political figures are among those stirring up the extremists. President Trump and Marine Le Pen have each stoked the fires of extremism by pushing false theories of the origins of the virus and spreading hate speech. In France, Marine Le Pen has used facebook to spread anti-muslim statements. Such allegations promote antagonism against migrants in the EU and has been shown to cause an increase in hate crimes against marginalised groups. Especially in Italy, extremists have used social media to promote their narrative blaming their coronavirus outbreak on African migrants.

COVID-19’s Effect on EU Migration

While many European nations have closed their borders in the name of protecting their external security during COVID-19, it is important to recognize that there may be a resurgence of immigration as soon as borders are lifted. In the month of March alone, asylum applications in the EU declined by a staggering 43 percent due to emergency measures limiting travel into the bloc, with countries that limit travel the most recording the most significant decline in applications. A special report from the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) highlights how asylum applications will likely increase in the long run due to COVID-19 cases rising in lower income countries, as these countries are at the highest vulnerability to infections and have the lowest coping capacities.

While the EU struggles with right-wing extremists abusing the void left by COVID-19, the suspension of global coalition operations in the Middle East has provided a similar power gap that ISIS is seeking to exploit. Given that ISIS is generally already socially isolated, they are well prepared to abuse this power gap left by poorly equipped local troops and a distracted international community. This will spur even more asylum-related immigration once Europe is ready to open its borders again, agitating the right-wing extremists even more.

Many extremists in the EU promote anti-immigration messages and call for the closure of borders, but these messages may not see as much support until Europe experiences the full economic ramifications of the virus. If the EU succeeds in its efforts to slow the economic devastation, then there will likely be a ‘rally round the flag’ effect drawing support for the government; however, if these efforts fail, extremist groups could draw even more support from vulnerable groups.

Solutions for Moving Forward

As a solution to the social ramifications of the coronavirus, greater support and attention should be paid to the most vulnerable communities in order to reduce the insecurities that extremists tend to exploit. Instead of leaving these vulnerable groups to rely on extremists for support, additional social aid would fill the void instead. Many have been calling for a new Marshall Plan to undermine the appeal of extremist ideologies, as the original was partially intended by the U.S. to suppress extremism. Social aid packages will be more essential now than ever considering that the economic devastation left by COVID-19 will play directly into the hands of the EU’s Eurosceptic extremist groups. With the Eurozone slated to see a record recession, the worst may still be yet to come.

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