Fear, a decisive force in these European elections

As the European Parliament elections approach, a growing sense of fear stemming from multiple — yet mutually reinforcing — sources seems to be the decisive force shaping electoral behaviour. Citizens of the EU experience uncertainty in the face of broad economic and cultural changes occurring at an unprecedented pace, coupled by unforeseen crises, such as Covid and the climate crisis, and the re-emergence of war conflicts, on a continent accustomed to peace for over half a century.

The survey

Last month, more than 10,800 European voters took a stand on the pressing issues and running challenges of the EU, as part of a large-scale comparative survey conducted by Kapa Research across 10 member countries (Bulgaria, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, and Spain) between May 4 and 24, 2024.

This survey goes beyond domestic dilemmas or voting intentions. Taking a closer look at emerging and established trends within European societies between 2019 and 2024, it examines what shapes the bloc’s social agenda today, citizen concerns about European and international issues, leadership expectations, and opinions about leading global figures. On question after question, responses reveal a strong undercurrent of fear impacting voting behaviour just days before June’s European elections, emanating from four critical realities.

Rising cost of living is the foremost concern for Europeans heading to the polls.

Fear cause No.1: Economic uncertainty

Rising cost of living is the foremost concern for Europeans heading to the polls. Inflation shocks that have stunned European economies during the post-pandemic period established a deep-rooted unease about people’s ability to make ends meet. Asked about issues that worry them most when thinking of today’s Europe, respondents, at an average of 47 percent , place “rising cost of living” as their top concern. The issue has become remarkably salient in countries like France (58 percent), Greece (55 percent), Romania (54 percent), Spain (49 percent), and Bulgaria (44 percent), yet, still, in the rest of the surveyed member countries the cost of living ends up among the top three causes of concern. This wide sense of economic uncertainty is further spurred by a lingering feeling of unfairness when it comes to the distribution of wealth: M ore than eight out of 10 (81 percent overall) sense that “in Europe, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer”.

via Kapa Research

Anxiety transforms into fear when one realizes that the main political conflict has little to do with competing economic solutions to high living costs. Instead, it is more of a clash between systemic forces and extremists, primarily centred on the field of immigration and the perceived threat to the European way of life.

Fear cause No.2: Immigration

On the cultural front, since 2015, immigration in Europe has been a complex and multifaceted issue, with humanitarian and political implications. In our survey, immigration appears to be the second most important citizen concern with 37 percent (on average), while, at the same time, on the question of which areas should Europe focus on the next five years, calls for “stricter immigration control” are prevalent, with 36 percent of respondents across all surveyed countries ranking it as a top priority. This is notably evident in Germany (56 percent), in spite of its reputation as a welcoming country early in the migration crisis, and in Italy (40 percent), a hub-country into Europe for migrants and refugees. More importantly, the perception of immigration as a “threat to public order” is widespread, with 68 percent of respondents holding this view, compared to only 23 percent who see it as an “opportunity for a new workforce”.

via Kapa Research

Fear cause No.3: War on our doorstep

The return of war to Europe has reignited fears about security; conflicts in Ukraine and, more recently, in Gaza come into play as new factors impacting this year’s EU elections. In this survey, “the Russia-Ukraine war” is the third most pressing concern for 35 percent of respondents, only two percentage points below “immigration ”. Here geographical proximity is crucial as the issue is especially prominent in Estonia (52 percent), Hungary (50 percent), Poland (50 percent), and Romania (43 percent), all neighbouring countries to either Russia or Ukraine. Additionally, demand for immediate ceasefire on both fronts is prevalent: 65 percent believe that hostilities in Gaza “must stop immediately ”, while the same view is supported by 60 percent for the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

To this end, as the feeling of danger from wars and terrorism grows stronger, EU-UK relations become indirectly connected to the issue of security: 56% of respondents wish for a (re)alignment between Great Britain and the EU. At the same time, and compared to current leaders, former UK PM Tony Blair enjoys strong popularity ratings.

Fear cause No.4: The unknown reality of AI

Over time, technological advancement has been widely welcomed as a positive development for humanity, as a means of improving living conditions, and as a growth accelerator. The rapid rise of a rtificial i ntelligence in citizens’ day-to-day lives seems to be disrupting this tradition. Among the member countries surveyed, an average majority of 51 percent considers AI more as a “threat to humanity” rather than as an “opportunity” (31 percent ). Along the same vein, scepticism is reflected in the reluctance to embrace AI as a strategic goal for the EU in the next five years, with 54 percent opposing such a move.

via Kapa Research

Mixing all four of the above ingredients produces an explosive cocktail of fear within European societies.

Key takeaway

Mixing all four of the above ingredients produces an explosive cocktail of fear within European societies. While combined with the prevalent EU technocracy and the weak institutions-to-citizens communication, it is reasonable to expect mounted distrust and electoral consequences. Voters will use their ballot to send painful messages. However, our survey shows that the great majority still favo r strengthening the European acquis — security, freedom, democracy, growth, and social cohesion — and seek a competent leadership that can defend it.

via Kapa Research

See full survey report by Kapa Research here.



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How bullying became Westminster’s latest culture war

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LONDON —  Rishi Sunak’s righthand man is out of a job, after an inquiry found he mistreated civil servants. But this is Westminster, 2023 — which means the never-ending culture war just found a new target.

Dominic Raab resigned as Britain’s deputy prime minister and justice secretary Friday after a report by the barrister Adam Tolley found he acted in a way which was “intimidating” and “unreasonably and persistently aggressive” toward his officials. 

Yet despite Tolley, a respected independent figure, concluding Raab’s behavior “inevitably” caused staff to feel undermined and humiliated, the outgoing minister left government with a stinging attack on the investigation, claiming the bar for bullying had been set “dangerously low.”

Raab’s departure over matters of personal conduct — two-and-a-half years after former Home Secretary Priti Patel was allowed to keep her job in similar circumstances — marks a decisive shift in the way bullying is treated in Westminster and Whitehall, where complaints by junior staff are widespread but rarely acted upon.

The trouble is, not everyone thinks it’s a step in the right direction.

Standard procedure?

Senior figures throwing their weight around in the corridors of power is nothing new. Gordon Brown was notorious for outbursts of rage as prime minister, while his predecessor Tony Blair’s pugilistic press secretary Alistair Campbell is acknowledged as the inspiration behind Malcolm Tucker, the terrifying antihero of political sitcom The Thick of It. 

Parliamentary staffers and civil servants are likely to come across a dizzying range of behavior in their workplace, from the mildly eccentric to the downright aggressive. 

Landmark reports in 2018 found there was a “widespread” problem with bullying in Westminster, and 12 percent of Whitehall officials reported they had been subjected to bullying. 

Since then, a handful of high-profile MPs have had bullying complaints upheld against them, including Patel and the former House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow. 

Aspects of the employment structure at Westminster and Whitehall are widely seen as contributing to the conditions for such behavior to thrive and go unchecked. 

MPs’ offices are a law unto themselves, with little formal human resources oversight, meaning the people who join their offices could find themselves working for a model boss or a raging tyrant. 

“Working for an MP is an incredibly strange job and there is an understanding that things will always have to be a bit different,” as one staffer puts it, “but the kind of behavior that goes on — in any other corporation you’d be suspended.”

Before the outcome of the Tolley inquiry, Raab’s team briefed that he would make no apologies for expecting high standards of civil servants | Tolga Akmen/EPA-EFE

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA trade union, argues that the lack of clear procedure for dealing with bullying by ministers “actually encourages those extremes of behavior,” because offenders know they are unlikely to face consequences.

Current and former officials who spoke to POLITICO shared stories of being screamed at in front of colleagues, having their work screwed up and thrown in the bin, and being ordered to clean the office floor — and insisted none were isolated episodes, but part of a pattern of behavior. 

Some of these incidents have resulted in formal complaints but many more have not. Two high-ranking ministers are among those named privately as the subject of persistent bullying concerns. 

One former No. 10 adviser said there was a ‘whisper network’ around bullying, meaning the known offenders in parliament “don’t get punished — they become known as being a bully, and people just don’t apply for jobs with them.”

Meet ‘the real world’

The nettle is especially difficult to grasp because the very concept of ‘bullying’ is contested far more fiercely than other forms of misconduct, such as sexual harassment.

Claims have long been met with raised eyebrows, and the underlying suspicion that much of what is termed “bullying” is in fact an overreaction to a robust management style.

In a case of minister vs. civil servant, all the ingredients are there for a new front in Britain’s culture wars.

Before the outcome of the Tolley inquiry, Raab’s team briefed that he would make no apologies for expecting high standards of civil servants. In his resignation letter, Raab went even harder.

“Ministers must be able to give direct critical feedback on briefings and submissions to senior officials,” he wrote, adding that the bar for bullying had been set “dangerously low.” 

In other words, lily-livered civil servants — whom many Conservatives suspect of harboring anti-Tory, anti-Brexit sentiment — were simply not able to cope with the demands placed upon them. 

One Tory MP elected in 2019, Mark Jenkinson, acknowledged bullying does exist, but said some examples cited in recent newspaper reports, such as throwing small objects in anger, or telephoning staff unannounced, did not meet the bar. 

“Anybody who thinks this is bullying needs to meet the real world,” Jenkinson said. “But maybe I just think that because I’m a Northerner.”

While No. 10 officials insist that the PM did not order Dominic Raab to quit, he clearly did not offer him the same protection as Boris Johnson provided former Home Secretary Priti Patel in similar circumstances in 2020 | Neil Hall/EPA-EFE

Matthew Parris, a Times columnist who was a Tory MP in the 1970s and 1980s, said that bullying is now “much less widespread than it used to be, and at the same time people are more sensitive to it.”

He noted that in his day, “MPs would regularly blow their top and bawl somebody out,” and that “most fearsome of all were the secretaries who ran our offices.”

‘Hard process’

The counter-argument runs that bullying is no more subjective than other type of workplace dispute, and can be tested against established definitions set out by mediation service ACAS and under codes of conduct for MPs and ministers. 

And those who have been involved in a grievance process against an MP insist nobody would put themselves through such a gruelling process without good reason.

Jenny McCullough, a former clerk whose bullying complaint against ex-MP Keith Vaz was eventually upheld, said that pursuing her case had been a lengthy, alienating experience, in which he attempted to stall progress and cast doubt on her own motives. 

“The person who complains brings trouble on themselves. It’s a really hard process,” she said, adding that her confidence and feelings of self-worth had not fully recovered after events which occurred years ago. 

The FDA’s Penman added: “If you’re a civil servant and you think you’re being bullied by a minister, you know only the PM can authorize an investigation — you have no rights and you’re challenging one of the most powerful people in the country.” 

The trade union is now calling for an independent inquiry into bullying and harassment in the civil service in order to establish a new mechanism through which grievances can be lodged against ministers.

Inside the Ministry of Justice, relief at Raab’s departure was mixed with anger at his parting shot. One official said there was “disappointment but not surprise” at the tone of his resignation.

While No. 10 officials insist that the prime minister did not order Raab to quit, he clearly did not offer him the same protection as Boris Johnson provided Patel in 2020, when he ordered colleagues to “form a square around the Prittster.” 

For now, Sunak’s desire to differentiate himself from Johnson may be civil servants’ main weapon on the new frontier of the culture war.



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