As It Happens·Q&A

European politician blames COVID protests on decades of distrust

After a weekend of violent protests across Europe against vaccine mandates and other pandemic restrictions, a member of European Parliament is calling on lawmakers to stop talking down to citizens and work to rebuild trust.

'I would urge them to be patient, but I understand their anger,' Belgium MEP says of protesters

Protesters face police during a protest against COVID-19 restrictions in Brussels, the capital of Belgium, on Sunday. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

Story Transcript

After a weekend of violent protests across Europe against vaccine mandates and other pandemic restrictions, a member of European Parliament is calling on lawmakers to stop talking down to citizens and work to rebuild trust.

Philippe Lamberts is an MEP for Belgium, one of several European countries that saw massive demonstrations over the weekend against COVID-19 measures. 

One of the biggest demonstrations took place in Vienna on Saturday, where tens of thousands of people, many from far-right groups, protested the Austrian government's lockdown and plan to make vaccines mandatory by Feb. 1. People also marched in Switzerland, Croatia, Italy, Northern Ireland and the Netherlands. 

Lamberts, a member of the Ecolo green party, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the situation in Europe. Here is part of their conversation. 

We saw extraordinary scenes from all over Europe this weekend. What did you make of the scale of this weekend's protests?

The people are totally fed up [with] the restrictions imposed by the governments following the pandemic, and I understand them.

Yet, we are still not out of the woods, and I would urge them to be patient. We have tried to limit restrictions to what is needed to avoid overwhelming our hospital system, and we still want to do that. And if we don't pay attention, with the delta variant, we might still be at risk of overwhelming it and, therefore, measures are still needed.

We all suffer from it. I'm a member of the European Parliament and I'm [subject] to the same restrictions. Yet, I would urge them to be patient. But I understand their anger.

Philippe Lamberts is a member of European Parliament for Belgium and a member of the French-speaking green party Ecolo. (Bruno Fahy/AFP/Getty Images)

We saw on the weekend, there were tens of thousands of people out in the streets and a number of places. But at some point in many of those protests, it turned to riots and violence. What do you think was behind that?

That's hard for me to gauge. 

Obviously, there's still a lot of conspiracy theories going around, and people are having an interest in destabilizing governments in Europe.

How much of that is behind the demonstrations? I couldn't say.

If you treat your citizens as if they were kids without basic knowledge of the situation, you are basically fanning the flames.- Philippe Lamberts, Belgian member of European Parliament 

We saw a number of banners and flags from different political movements, especially in Austria, where we saw neo-Nazi leaders ... taking part in this with signs about "vaccine apartheid" [and] wearing the yellow star and saying that they identify with the Holocaust, things of that nature. What did you make of that?

It's no secret that the far-right parties in Europe have been heavily supporting the anti-vaccine movement and anti-restriction movement across the continent. So this is absolutely [not] news. Of course, they have an interest in destabilizing the governments.

But I would be careful not to assimilate every single demonstrator to these far-right movements. I do believe that there are constituents, citizens, who are genuinely frustrated about the situation and they want to vent their anger.... Not all of them succumb to looting and rioting.

To what degree are they being manipulated or ... their views are being shaped by political movements that are exploiting these differences within your society?

I think that, indeed, those far-right movements are exploiting this. Specifically, what they are exploiting is a significantly reduced trust of citizens in public institutions. And the roots of that date back decades.

Many governments have conceded that what is good for big business is good for society. And as a result, we have seen health scandals across the continent. We have seen toxic products are being sold or being used. And that has eroded public confidence quite a lot in our countries.

This is all eroding trust. And where there is no trust, well, this is a fertile ground for conspiracy theories, for ... far-right parties trying to stimulate insurrection. 

So how, then, do you reconcile this? 

The first thing I'm doing as a politician is to address my citizens as adults. If you treat your citizens as if they were kids without basic knowledge of the situation, you are basically fanning the flames. So talk to your people, trusting their intelligence rather than their guts. And then show the facts and show the measures that you take related to the facts.

Dutch police, rioters clash at protest over COVID-19 restrictions

17 days ago
Police fired shots during a violent protest against COVID-19 measures in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam on Friday night. Injuries were reported among both rioters and police, and 51 people were arrested. 2:53

In Belgium, what we try to do is avoid all intensive care units [becoming] overwhelmed. We are successful at that because of the measures that we take. But we have to show the relationship between the goal that we want to achieve — that is avoiding overwhelming our ICUs — and measures that we take.

I'm not saying that ... is enough, but at least talk to your people based on fact and on intelligence rather than lecturing them. Because I heard the Dutch prime minister treating the demonstrators as idiots. Well, that is the best way to increase the size of the demonstration. Again, come to the people as adults and they might begin to respect you.

Police forces stand guard as people protest against COVID-19 restrictions outside the European Commission in Brussels on Sunday. (Johanna Geron/Reuters)

Is it maybe too late at this point to change the rhetoric, to change the approach, to get people to be vaccinated? Do you think that maybe whatever damage you're describing is done?

Destroying trust, that can be done in a split second. But restoring it is a marathon.

I do believe that some political leaders have a better track record at talking the truth to the people than others. You know, if you have been lecturing your people for two years now, changing tone will take time to take effect. But then again, we have to do it. I mean, there's no alternative to that. You cannot just say, "OK, well, it's too late," and let the chaos take over.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?