Conspiracy theories characterise views in and about Europe

3 May 2021

Conspiratorial narratives of internal disintegration and external threats affect views in the European Union and Europe to an increasing extent. Our trust in society is put to the test in crises such as COVID-19 when various groups are singled out as the villains. In extreme cases, this can inspire acts of terror.

Researchers from Uppsala University are among those demonstrating this in the new book Europe: Continent of Conspiracies. Conspiracy Theories in and about Europe.

Andreas Önnerfors
Andreas Önnerfors, Department of History at
Uppsala University

“For example, we can see how the refugee crisis in 2015–2016 led to a polarising climate of debate. Migration was portrayed as a conscious attempt to obliterate nation states and European identity. Such ideas still circulate in the press and social media and are used by populist political forces,” says Andreas Önnerfors, associate professor at the Department of History at Uppsala University. He and opinion researcher André Krouwel of VU Amsterdam (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) edited the book.

The volume is a result of the European Comparative Analysis of Conspiracy Theories COMPACT research project, which took place from 2016 to 2020. Fifteen authors – including political scientists, media researchers, social psychologists and historians – address the subject in 13 chapters.

Quantitative opinion studies encompassing viewpoints from a large number of people throughout Europe are one of the scientific methods used. The book also includes analyses of media reporting, textual interpretation of terrorist manifestos and investigations into how conspiracy theories have been used to mobilise voter support. The researchers have also taken into account results from several previous studies.

Exploit people’s need for easy answers

They found a clear correlation between people sceptical about European cooperation and conspiracy theory thinking. In the shadow of rising immigration, particularly in the context of the 2015 refugee crisis, populists managed to exploit people’s need for easy answers to complex problems and to single out culprits for the negative developments, the researchers write.

One chapter analyses the British press in the context of the Brexit referendum. It shows how blame placed on the EU and xenophobia interacted. Other examples of how conspiracy theories have flourished include the Greek debt crisis, which revived anti-German narratives and the myth that the EU is really a continuation of the Third Reich. Some conspiratorial movements also deny the existence of the Federal Republic of Germany which led to attempts to storm the German Reichstag in Berlin during the 2020 demonstrations against the coronavirus.

Has inspired acts of terror

The researchers assert that radicalisation driven by conspiracy theories has inspired acts of terror in some cases, such as on two separate occasions in Germany. In 2019 a right-wing extremist opened fire on a synagogue, and in 2020 another person with racist motives murdered 10 people in an attack on several hookah cafes.

Andreas Önnerfors deals with this in his chapter examining how the racist and xenophobic conspiracy theory about ‘the great replacement’ may have motivated these two acts of terror. French right-wing extremist writer Renaud Camus (1946–) developed this conspiracy theory, arguing that migration to Europe needs to be regarded as a bio-political weapon. He asserts that European elites have allied themselves with the invading masses to extinguish the soul and essence of the Continent.

“I have analysed the German translations and popularisations of Renaud Camus’s texts. My interpretation is that they have underpinned and legitimised the acts of terror in Germany in 2019 and 2020. Both perpetrators left their own terrorist manifestos behind. These are deeply influenced by anti-Semitic and Islamophobic conspiracy theories that can be directly linked to Renaud Camus’s ideas,” Önnerfors says.

Contradictory duality

One conclusion the researchers draw is that there is a contradictory duality in the conspiratorial worldview of Europe and the EU. On the one hand, it portrays Europe and its political unity as a powerful threat that conspires against the diversity and individuality of nation states. On the other hand, it describes Europe as a feeble and dying force too weak to defend itself against the plots created by various external enemies.

“Our book is the first to treat an entire continent as the subject of conspiracy theory thinking. We see the risks that these narratives might undermine Europe’s political culture and lead to a greater fragmentation of society,” says Önnerfors.