Half a decade ago, Europe’s far-right politicians and their parties found themselves enjoying a promising set of circumstances. Just as the continent was struggling to recover from a deep recession, huge numbers of refugees started crossing its borders. It was an ideal combination for nationalist populists, who used the ensuing rise in xenophobic sentiment to boost their political fortunes. But then the refugee flows eased, and economies started to recover. As the far-right parties’ influence waned, they began to ask: Could they find new controversies to continue fueling their ascent?
Enter the COVID-19 pandemic. Across Europe, the far right has jumped on the crisis—and, in particular, on government-imposed vaccination requirements—as a new source of outrage to motivate its political base. So far, though, the results have been disappointing, at best.
Nowhere in Europe are the far right’s efforts to mobilize around opposition to vaccine mandates more visible than in Italy, which has just imposed the strictest vaccine rules in Europe and perhaps the world. The new regulations, which were approved back in September and went into effect on Oct. 15, require all workers to show official proof of vaccination—a COVID-19 Green Pass—or face suspension from work without pay. The vaccine requirement is waived for anyone who has recently recovered from a COVID-19 infection or who has recently tested negative for the virus. But the government has also stopped paying for workers’ tests. The idea behind the plan was not just to make workplaces more secure, but also to pressure Italians to get vaccinated.