#COVID-19 fears give rise to new threats facing Europe
The new Franco-German initiative to mobilize €500 billion in funding for EU regions and industries isn’t just “a great step towards a fiscal union and a properly functioning currency union,” as Eurogroup head Mario Centeno put it; it is also one of the most coherent efforts to push back against unprecedented blows to European solidarity that EU leaders have shown in recent months. Europe is going to need every cent of that €500bn bto get back on its feet, and more if the latest economic forecasts predicting a 7.75% contraction this year are to be believed. The European Commission announced on 27 May that it will add €750bn to the Franco-German initiative, writes Paymon Azmoudeh.
While these moves are a welcome milestone, the European project needs more than money to emerge from this crisis intact. With Covid-19 cases at least temporarily subsiding, EU governments are only now managing to come to grips with a new set of threats the pandemic has brought with it. Handled well, the crisis could ultimately prove a catalyst for overdue change. Handled poorly, these threats could rapidly inflict serious harm on European unity and even the continent’s political stability.
The threat to Schengen and the spectre of borders
Free movement across national borders in the Schengen Area was suspended at the height of the pandemic, for perfectly legitimate and understandable reasons. While many EU citizens were barred from going more than a few kilometres from their homes, entry bans on non-essential trips was an obvious step towards slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The danger, however, is that as cases of COVID-19 continue to appear over the weeks and months ahead, at least some member states might well be tempted to make those temporary border controls and travel restrictions more permanent. Europe’s open internal borders have long been a target for the populist forces gaining ground across Europe, and some EU governments would be happy for an excuse to emulate the Brexit mantra of ‘taking back control’ of borders. While such moves might seem politically expedient in the short term, they would undermine one of the most important impacts of the EU on the average European’s daily life.
The likelihood of Schengen being suspended altogether has fortunately receded – despite a flurry of tit-for-tat exchanges – after several countries announced they would reopen borders over the course of June. There is also broad recognition that sabotaging Schengen would not only negatively impact member states but also deter travellers from other countries who are currently able to travel across 26 countries, either visa-free or with a single bloc-wide visa. A study by the European Parliament estimates that, without Schengen, border controls alone would potentially cost European commuters, travellers, and businesses tens of billions of Euros each year.
The threat to economies and infrastructure
The numbers may not lie, but in a climate of fear, a panicking public may well lash out at the very institutions and even the physical infrastructure it relies on for its social and economic needs in normal times. Take, for example, the ongoing spate of attacks on 5G towers in both the UK and continental Europe. Those attacks are being driven by a bogus belief in a linkage between cellular technologies and COVID-19, but their cost and potential risks are all too real.
Those responsible for targeting 5G (and often non-5G) infrastructure have been motivated by factually baseless but nonetheless viral content posted on social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Their attacks began in the UK, where nearly 80 masts have been set ablaze, but similar acts of vandalism have been seen in the Netherlands, Cyprus, and Ireland. The new trend poses a serious problem for emergency services in Europe, which rely heavily on these networks for their communications needs, but also for the millions of Europeans teleworking through confinement. Not content to reserve their ire for inanimate cell towers, anti-5G conspiracy theorists have also targeted employees of telecoms companies in the UK with verbal and even physical violence.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has stepped in to denounce this ‘infodemic’ and deny any links between the spread of the novel coronavirus and 5G technology. The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) has also confirmed that 5G signals pose no risk to human health. Sadly, the virus is the perfect foil for this kind of hoax: an invisible enemy seemingly designed to prey on our fears and anxieties.
The backlash against 5G – meant to connect people, businesses, and communities at precisely the time they need it most – is especially unfortunate given how important the technology will be to Europe’s post-Covid economic recovery. By offering far more bandwidth than the current generation of mobile technologies, 5G will not only allow for telecoms networks to keep up with rapidly increasingly demand, but will allow for the integration of new ‘smart’ vehicles, appliances, and other products into the broader grid. As networks upgrade over the next few years, consumers could see download speeds 100 times faster than what they are today.
The threat to stability – and democracy
That such conspiracy theories find such fertile ground in Europe speaks to a deeper lack of trust in public institutions that has serious implications for the EU’s collective economic recovery. The links between the anti-5G movement and the anti-vaxxer movement point to how these conspiracy theories can quickly metastasize to threaten public health, especially in a context where a COVID-19 vaccine needs broad public acceptance to be effective.
And then, of course, there is the danger posed to democracy itself. A number of EU countries have pushed the boundaries of constitutional law and European norms governing free speech and public surveillance to respond to the extraordinary circumstances, but unless limited to the strictly necessary, such measures can quickly turn into democratic backsliding. On this front, Hungary’s justice minister assuaged fears among many in Brussels by announcing the country’s “rule by decree” which began in March would come to an end in June.
All of these challenges ultimately share common solutions: solidarity at every level, from local communities to the collected EU member states, and a rigorous commitment to transparency on the part of those who exercise authority over Europe’s collective recovery. This crisis could yet become a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reframe the bloc’s priorities and invest both financial and political capital in projects engaging head-on with issues of inequality, sustainability, and climate change. However, without a focused and collaborative response, these existential challenges – driven by the likely future resurgence of the virus – could prove insurmountable.