No evidence pandemic is boosting xenophobia in Europe


Post-coronavirus, both the left and the right may be increasingly in sync, albeit for different reasons.

This photo taken on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, is a view of Bergamo, the heart of the hardest-hit province in Italy’s hardest-hit region of Lombardy, Italy. (AP)

One might have thought the coronavirus pandemic would have been an instant and massive boost to xenophobia in Europe and this would be particularly true of Italy.

For it is in Italy that the pandemic has taken its greatest toll and Italy’s far-right League, which has taken its inflammatory viewpoint mainstream in the country and further afield in Europe, enjoys the greatest domestic popularity of any party.

By rights, the conditions should be perfect for the League’s anti-immigrant politics. It should be blooming virulently, in the gritty soil fertilised by fear, fake news, grief and uncertainty.

However, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Termometro Politico (TP), the well-regarded Italian political website, reported that its poll indicated continuing decline in support for the League. The party still has the most support among voters, it said, 31.6%, compared with 21% for the Democratic Party, which is part of the coalition government, but the League’s star appears to be waning rather than shining brighter in the age of coronavirus.

It is significant that the TP poll was conducted March 11-12, 48 hours after the crisis forced the Italian government to announce a stringent national lockdown to halt the spread of the virus. That should have been the very moment when the League, led by Matteo Salvini, tapped into Italy’s sense of panic and dread and wrested the narrative from Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and his administration. He hasn’t managed it — yet.

That’s not for want of trying. In late February, Salvini, a former interior minister, demanded Conte’s resignation for his failure to “defend Italy and Italians.” To refocus the coronavirus-afflicted country’s attention on immigrants and Muslims — his main targets for the past six years as the face and voice of the League — Salvini said: “The infection is spreading. I want to know from the government who has come in and gone out. We have to seal our borders now.”

He returned to his trademark rhetoric about African asylum-seekers arriving in Italy from Libya. “Allowing migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible,” Salvini said. He was wrong on the facts when he said it. At the time, Egypt was the only African country to have reported one confirmed coronavirus case. Libya confirmed its first case March 25.

Salvini also seems to have been wrong in his assumption that Italians would be eager to embrace the League’s customary explanation for their woes. Despite obvious efforts to remind voters that their true enemies are the usual visible ones — immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa — Salvini and the League are drawing tepid interest.

There are two possible reasons. There is the mood of the moment that recognises the unprecedented peril posed by coronavirus, an invisible enemy that knows no borders, in Italy or anywhere. The League’s siren song has less purchase at a time Italians are cleaving together in support of their embattled government as it struggles to fight the pandemic.

Indeed, Italian pollster Ixe recorded that Italy’s confidence in its government increased 6 percentage points to 49% the week of March 23 with Conte’s approval rating rising 6 points to 51%. And, if social media memes are any indication, there are many new and affectionate ones about Conte.

Could Italy’s sudden and apparent deafness to the League’s hateful rhetoric signal a deeper change in Europe generally and more particularly in Italy? Is it possible that the fever has broken and the xenophobic phase is over?

There is little evidence of that. In step with Salvini, the leaders of far-right parties in France, Germany and Spain asked for border closures early in the unfolding coronavirus crisis. The call seemed less to do with public health than the far-right’s trademark, the clamour for walls to keep out refugees and illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile, the Hungarian government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, justified its March 1 abolition of the right to asylum by discerning “a certain link between coronavirus and illegal migrants.”

Even so, it’s possible the pandemic will eventually blunt some of the sharpest arguments employed by Europe’s xenophobes.

Post-coronavirus, both the left and the right may be increasingly in sync, albeit for different reasons. Even before the virus outbreak, Europe’s left-leaning environmental movement had been stigmatising air travel and demanding that localisation roll back globalisation. The right had consistently called for strong borders and a reversal of globalisation.

After the pandemic, both wish lists might mesh in a way that leaves little space for xenophobes.

Originally published in The Arab Weekly