The European Green Deal (EGD) is at the heart of Europe’s recovery from the Covid19 pandemic: the EGD will need to help restart the economy, address a looming climate catastrophe and address deep inequalities (that will have been worsened by the crisis). Could the rolling out of the EGD result in more polarisation in Europe—one in which divisions between North and South, or East and West, rural and urban assert themselves yet again? Or will political and civil society leaders be able to secure democratic consent for the policies of the EGD? And if so, how? Where will consent come from? And what will dissent look like?
These are the questions we are exploring both qualitatively and quantitatively over the next 18 months through our work with our partner the Open Society European Policy Institute, a part of the Open Society Foundations. This research is part of the Bridges Project, a long-term collaboration between Counterpoint and OSEPI. Bridges explores the hidden drivers of key policy dilemmas and brings vital insights from research across many disciplines to the attention of European policymakers and politicians.
The coronavirus crisis is forcing policy makers and citizens to reassess both the scope and the role of government policy at every level. As the crisis evolves, and hopefully becomes more managed and contained, policy and decision makers at EU and national level will need to deal with the re-ordering of some of their priorities on their paths to recovery. They will need to assess citizens’ appetite for public intervention and perhaps above all, gage how they might secure democratic consent for bold policy interventions in the aftermath of a moment that will have simultaneously depleted their resources, taxed citizens’ forbearance for sacrifice, increased the necessity of bold policy changes, but also increased the willingness of some to make the most of the opportunities for deep systemic change, for better or for worse.
Making sure that positive system change results from this trajectory will depend on a deep understanding of people’s motivations, attitudes and desires, and the capacity to appeal to them and frame policy change in ways that tap into the better angels of their nature.
One of the areas in which the EU and member states might experience their biggest challenges for the continued pursuit of reform is the European Green Deal (EGD). Indeed, the debate around the EGD will crystallise the paradox that COVID-19 is already revealing: the need to address deep inequalities that will have been worsened by the crisis, and to restart the economy all the while harnessing lessons from the crisis in order to avoid an almost inevitable deeper one, including a climate catastrophe.
At the heart of the Bridges Project is the conviction that policymakers need to understand the views, needs and stances of their citizens in comprehensive and holistic ways in order to complement data that can often give the impression that citizens are incoherent or even irrational. The aim of the Bridges Project is to expose the hidden wiring that helps making sense of complex attitudes and reactions in order to better understand what policies to elaborate and how to frame them.
The likelihood of behaviour that might appear contradictory will increase in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, because citizens, as well as civil society organisations and businesses, will understandably be attracted by two objectives that might at first appear to be incompatible. On the one hand, rapid recovery (at any cost, and potentially through traditional means and industries) as well as on the other hand, the perspective of a healthier and more balanced as well as more secure long-term social and economic contract that addresses some of the dysfunctionalities revealed by the crisis through bold policy-making and the green transition.
So in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, an already fragmented landscape of attitudes across the EU may be even more fragmented, and appetite for climate policy more chequered or fragile, or potentially more demanding. Or both. This may result in an even more polarised Europe—one in which divisions between North and South, or East and West, reassert themselves even more strikingly. Ensuring democratic consent for the policies of the EGD may therefore be even more of a challenge than it might have been before the coronavirus pandemic and attendant health and economic crises. A deep and subtle understanding of this landscape will thus be even more crucial for policy and decision makers.
In the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, as the EU will try to move simultaneously into recovery and transformation, we need to think about the consent of citizens, some of whom will be – and feel – they have already been disproportionately affected by the crisis and might feel disproportionately affected by any ambitious policy initiatives, such as climate change. Particularly if they occur in the context of a weakened EU.
One of the dangers of the current moment is the potential for a resurgence of populist mobilisation and support. In many respects, liberal democracies will be squeezed from two sides: on the one hand by those who will argue in favour of turning the crisis into an opportunity to change our economic models, embrace a green transition and address the deep dysfunctionalities of a model that led us to the state exposed by the pandemic; and on the other those who will argue that a ‘return to normal’ and the reinforcement of existing models of work and industry. That latter camp will include people from across the political spectrum, moved by different senses of urgency. But they will also include populists of every hue, who will not only use the aftermath of the crisis to question the fundamentals of globalisation, interdependence and multilateral institutions—but who will a) frame ambitious policies such as the EGD as superfluous in a time of ‘reconstruction’ b) depict the EGD as designed and led by an elite who, they will be quick to point out, might have been able to withstand the economic consequences of the crisis better and would be better able to bear the cost of the green transition thus arguing c) that the EGD is another instance of an elite once again for a disproportionate contribution by ordinary people to secure a public good, climate policy, that may not actually be top of their list. Add to this anger at the EU, who will be consistently be depicted as an elite club, as it already is in many quarters and rising in Italy. And finally, the fact that many people will feel that they have simply suffered enough. There appears to be a perfect storm for resistance against any system change that requires immediate trade-offs and further sacrifices.
Whilst decision-makers are not unaware of the pitfalls, there needs to be thorough work done urgently in order to gather an understanding of how to secure democratic consent around these issues, especially at a time when populists challenges could potentially be over-ridden by tapping into the desire for long-term protection and necessary, positive system change.
The question is ultimately whether policy-makers can develop an understanding of anxieties and resentments but also of hopes and desires well enough and fast enough so as to use them to inform the kind of frameworks that will be needed to secure the necessary and urgent consent for climate policy trade-offs, and long-term system change.
OSEPI and Counterpoint will conduct a two-year collaboration to:
In year 1, we will gage citizen attitudes toward ambitious system change (especially around the EGD) as the crisis unfolds via both quantitative and qualitative approaches and gain a much better understanding of potential dissent and from whom.
In Year 2, we will continue to monitor the evolution attitudes toward climate policy in the EU and we will turn to outreach and recommendations to policymakers and journalists in Brussels and other key European capitals.
Year 1 and the first part of Year 2 are in effect a mapping of attitudes, of potential flashpoints and of the cultural contexts in which they might emerge. This will happen through several waves of measurement of debates, discussions, thematic conversations, memes, and exchanges on social and traditional media in each of the eight countries; as well as a series of papers exploring traditions of democratic consent and dissent, the role of attitudes and institutions and how these are being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in our case study countries; and then a second series of papers exploring the impact of specific EGD policy strands and how they are playing out in our six case studies (which policies will attract most dissent/consent – and where – who will be involved in triggering them, who will participate). The first part of the project is therefore about surfacing the hidden wiring of democratic consent and dissent by gaining an understanding of both the surface storms of dissent as well as the cultural, historical, social and psychological context in which they are occurring.
Can the solidarity and reciprocity triggered across Europe outlast the pandemic? Have citizen motivations and choices been deeply altered by the pandemic? Has there been a generalised realisation of the fragility of our economic and development models? And will these translate into more support for action on the planet? Or a helpless turn to the models whose limits we already know? We will explore these questions through the social media monitors, the research publications, and in dialogue with a network of experts and colleagues.
We are proud to have OSEPI as our main partners.
We also work with our data partners Opinion Science. Based in Paris, we have a long-term relationship with them and have previously worked with them via our Associate Joël Gombin. Opinion Science is a research institute dedicated to social data analysis. Their methods are a mix of data collection, statistical sorting and machine learning for the design of new interpretive models of the digital public space. Based in Paris, Opinion Science focuses on the study of new forms of politicisation and how they contribute to political identity building across Europe. Their clients and funders are think tanks, public institutions and private companies.
The institute was founded in 2015 by Joël Gombin, a sociologist and open data expert, and Justin Poncet, a communications expert. Both Joël and Justin hold posts at higher education institutions (Sciences-Po, Celsa, Sorbonne).
As part of the Opinion Science team, Jordan Ricker (former Head of Digital, Content and Opinion at the City of Paris), and Counterpoint Associate Matthieu Blondeau (former Head of Strategy and Communication at the European Parliament office in France) are also key contributors to the Counterpoint study.