#FreedomConvoy -Why Europe's fight against the pandemic is about to get much more dangerous
#FreedomConvoy "Despite months of persuasion, despite intensive media campaigns, despite discussions in various media we have not succeeded in convincing enough people to get vaccinated." Those were the words of former Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg last month as he announced the first nationwide vaccine mandate in Europe. Now, Germany looks set to follow where Austria has led. Others have made vaccines mandatory for parts of the population and imposed restrictions that increasingly explicitly target the unvaccinated, as Europe battles the twin challenges of sharply rising Covid figures and plateauing vaccination rates. Nearly one year into the EU's vaccination campaign, and with around one in three Europeans still unvaccinated, it is not so much hesitancy that European governments are now facing as outright opposition, with the danger that as governments get tougher so too will popular anger towards them. The crucial question of trust Only 19% of Europeans include their government among their most trusted sources of reliable information on Covid-19 vaccines, according to a survey conducted in May 2021 by the European Barometer, a collection of cross-country public opinion surveys conducted regularly on behalf of the EU's institutions. Even before the pandemic, vaccine hesitancy in Europe was strongly correlated to a populist distrust of mainstream parties and governments. One study published in the European Journal of Public Health in 2019 found "a highly significant positive association between the percentage of people in a country who voted for populist parties and the percentage who believe that vaccines are not important and not effective." What the pandemic has provided is a Europe-wide real-time test of that correlation. Nearly two years in and with most countries having exhausted what means they had of encouraging people to get vaccinated, the map of those who remain unvaccinated shows that where there is distrust in government and traditional political parties -- as measured by the strength of populist movements -- many people have yet to get vaccinated. Essentially, people who trust institutions need no convincing in the face of a pandemic; people who don't are unlikely to be influenced at all. Eastern Europe is where vaccination rates are the lowest. Bulgaria has the lowest rate of all, with just 26.6% of the total population vaccinated, according to government data. The country has also been going through a major political crisis with three parliamentary elections held this year. Difficulties with vaccine rollouts and in reaching more remote and elderly rural populations are also to blame in Eastern Europe, but in some of the countries where vaccine take-up has been lowest, populist parties are either in power or strong electorally. Further west, lower vaccination rates are also to be found in countries and regions with either popular or voluble populist or extremist movements, as in Germany, Austria and Northern Italy. In a paper published by the journal Psychological Medicine in October, Michele Roccato and Silvia Russo from the University of Turin argue that their study shows "people with a populist orientation tend to refuse the Covid-19 vaccine, in line with previous research showing that vaccine refusal is often politicized, but that its politicization is not limited to the traditional left-right cleavage." A new common enemy Sophie Tissier, who organizes protests against Covid-19 restrictions and vaccines in France, says that these protests have created a new political force that is radical but goes beyond party political lines. She says her group seeks to "create a citizens' opposition which is beyond electoral considerations and much more like a watchdog that sits outside the world of politics to be able to tell it: 'Look here, you are no longer protecting our rights, you are no longer protecting our rights under the law.'" In August, more than 230,000 people took to the streets across the country in one day after France became one of the first European countries to announce the use of relatively strict vaccine passes. "It really set things alight because people realized that life as it was, was coming to an end," she said. "People would no longer be free, or able to go out as they did." Since then, protests have tapered off in France, partly because no mainstream party has been openly encouraging its supporters to join them. France's vaccine rates are among the highest in Europe, suggesting that even in countries where there is strong vaccine hesitancy -- as there was in France even before the pandemic -- far-right or populist parties' stance on the vaccine can have an impact. Elsewhere in Europe, such groups are clearly fanning the anti-vaccination flames. In Austria, several protests planned since the government announced its nationwide vaccine mandate last month have been planned by the far-right Freedom Party.