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Europa United contributor Yannis Karamitsios and Elena Petrescu of the International Association of Political Science Students (IAPSS) in Bucharest, find that Romania can shed some light on an important question about the issue of trustworthiness which is growing throughout Europe as the lockdown continues.

The Covid-19 pandemic is no longer just a sanitary crisis but also a political trustworthiness issue. In “Power and Discontent”, William Gramson claims that the survival of a democratic political system is conditional on the support of a majority of citizens. A substantial degree of political discontent may lead to the collapse of that majoritarian support and, as Gramson highlights, enhance the odds for a “revolutionary” change in the political and social system. But what does it mean for the European future and why is it relevant in the current context?

The Discontent Moment in Romania

Even though trust in what is called the European project is not being critically harmed as in certain member States, the big Discontent Moment has also arrived in Romania, a paramount EU sympathiser. According to the latest Eurobarometer survey on citizens’ perception of the EU, Romanians ranked second place (with a score of 68%) among respondents with a positive image of the union.

By monitoring EU-related posts on the Facebook pages of some Romanian media organisations during only one day, one can notice an alarming feeling of cynicism in the audience comments:

“Your (Ursula von der Leyen) words are in vain, they won’t provide us with a better medical system or food.”

“Merkel is making us Germany’s slaves.”

“Romania is the vassal of the big European powers.”

“The EU is over, soon it will be buried.”

That trend is fortunately not yet prevailing, but definitely considerable.

But what is really going on? How can this rhetoric flourish in one of the main sympathisers of the EU project?

Simple people want simple answers. And this is one of the reasons why conspiracy theories that depict the new coronavirus as a “foreign bioweapon” or a “plot to re-craft the population” are being embraced by more and more people. Indeed, it is such a simple way to imagine that an extrinsic power wants to destroy the society rather than reasoning on scientific explanations full of unattractive and orotund concepts.

Citing the journalist Max Fisher in a “New York Times” article “the belief that we have access to secret information may help us feel that we have an advantage, that we are somehow safer”. It is simple to think that the EU is doing nothing for you rather than checking for numbers and facts. Even more simple is to believe that someone with power is conspiring against you rather than figuring out how you can contribute at an individual level to solve the situation. Therefore, the “infodemic” as the World Health Organization (WHO) coins it demands clear, fast-forward, regular, transparent and harmonised communication assets from those involved in crisis management.

Simple people want unity and cohesion. Another finding of our research is that in order to feel secure, common people need to see that the institutions in charge of managing the crisis are united and fully-compromised. There is no room for a north-south rift. In order to be solidare with each other and obey general rules, people need a source of inspiration and this has to come from above. And at the end of the day, if the enemy is common, why should we go on different paths to confront it?

In the case of Romania social skepticism is a deeply-rooted cultural trait. The almost forty years of living under a repressive regime where a wrong word could have costed your life had left significant traces in the Romanian collective consciousness. Thus, the existing skepticism psychological marks and the current social distancing measures may sharpen individualism and the “trust nobody” attitude.

The issue of trust in the rest of Europe

The Romanian pattern is also the same in several other neighbouring countries.  The north – south (and also east – west) divide in Europe is also reflected in the way in which people trust each other and their state authorities. That level is usually higher in the north and west.

It is however interesting that in the case of the coronavirus crisis the European public has demonstrated a more homogeneous level of confidence to the measures taken. The European Commission is monitoring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on public opinion within and beyond the EU. Every week it issues a newsletter that assembles information and analysis from both EU level and the member states. The results are remarkable and usually cut across the north-south or east-west division.

In Germany, for instance, 72% of people are satisfied or very satisfied with the official crisis management and 93% support the measures of social distancing. The same happens in Greece, a country of lower trust and obedience to the government in general, where 82% of citizens however have a positive or very positive appreciation of the government’s measures. 95% agree with the traffic ban and 93% are satisfied with the daily briefing offered by the epidemiologist-in-chief of the country.

Approval of the confinement measures in Italy was on the other hand lower, at 74%, while 24% of people had a negative opinion. This was perhaps due to the shockingly big number of human losses in this country – however still high compared to other governmental policies.

According to the professor of politics in Aarhus University Gert Tinggaard, Denmark successfully combated coronavirus thanks to the high level of confidence of people in their government and in each other. As people saw more value in mutual co-operation than suspicion of hidden plots, conspiracy theories have also failed there. It seems that this has been the case in the big majority of societies – not because they all have the same level of maturity or trust, but perhaps because people instinctively realised that only rational behaviour can help them to face the serious threat.

You can see in the link the latest newsletter here which is replaced by a new one every week. It contains a lot of interesting information about the trends and perceptions in each Member States and offers rich material for study and research on the topic of public trust.

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Yannis Karamitsios
Yannis Karamitsios is a lawyer originally from Thessaloniki, Greece. Since 2006 he lives in Brussels and works as legal officer in the European Commission. He is a convinced federalist and he dedicates big part of his public action to the promotion of European and international federalism.

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