No one can foresee the political developments in the UK that will determine whether it stays in the EU or leaves. Anthony Giddens assesses the factors in play.
A flurry of articles and books suggest that Britain is on course to go it alone and desert the European Union – Brexit. Yet matters are nowhere near as clear-cut. ‘Brexit’ is a clumsy neologism, and it leads me to coin an equally awkward one of my own – ‘Bremain’, in which the UK stays in the EU and even contributes positively towards its evolution.
No one can say which of these is the more likely, as the backdrop in the UK, the EU and indeed the wider world is too volatile. The UK is heading towards a May 7 general election that is the least predictable in recent history. Neither the Tories nor the Labour Party has the support of more than a third or so of voters, while the country is itself in the throes of an identity crisis. Last September’s Scottish referendum on independence was supposed to settle the question of separation ‘for a generation’, but has instead stirred greater nationalist passions. Members of the Scottish National Party (SNP) could be in the UK’s House of Commons in substantial numbers after May, and may even hold the balance of power. All this has resulted in the emergence of identity politics elsewhere, with regional devolution rising on the agenda along with renewed stirrings of English nationalism.
“The eurosceptics are very clear about what they oppose, but not what they want instead. They must be pressed in debate to make explicit what they are for and what kind of Britain they envisage”
If Labour come to be in government, it would almost certainly be in a coalition. The party has ruled out a referendum on EU membership unless treaty change is involved, and its likely main coalition partners – the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens – would doubtless endorse this. There is talk of a ‘progressive coalition’ between these parties, of which an important plank would be active support for EU membership. Labour’s backing for the European project has, in recent months, become much more open and positive.
It is equally possible that May’s election result is so inconclusive that any government formed will lack legitimacy and be short-lived. That might provoke even more rhetoric around Britain’s membership of the EU, but no in-out referendum could be introduced until after fresh elections. If the governability issue became unmanageable, there is an outside chance of a grand coalition between the Tories and Labour, such as in some continental countries. In that case, a referendum would be very unlikely.
There remains a possibility that the Tories are re-elected, probably needing support once again from one or more of the smaller parties. David Cameron would remain Prime Minister, but dependent perhaps on the support of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). That would mean great pressure for an early referendum. Yet UKIP’s own support is highly dependent on the appeal of its leader, Nigel Farage, so it is intrinsically fragile and might very well drain away come election time. It is just conceivable that in spite of all the political vagaries, the status quo is maintained with the Tories back in power in coalition with their current partners, the Liberal Democrats. In that case, an EU referendum would certainly become problematic as the Liberal Democrats are strongly pro-European.
“The eurosceptics have been far more assertive in putting their case forward than have supporters of Britain’s continued membership, and it’s a bias that has to be corrected”
Most discussions of Brexit start from the point in which the Tories are back in power, with a clear mandate for a referendum. Although this may very well happen, it is far from a foregone conclusion. But if it turns out to be the case, what is likely to ensue? David Cameron’s commitment to an EU referendum doesn’t seem in the least bit driven by conviction. It is, on the contrary, almost wholly pragmatic. He came to power in 2010 determined to stop the Tories from, as he put it, ‘banging on about Europe’. He was unsuccessful, in part because once the euro crisis took hold he found himself subject to increasing pressure from the eurosceptics in his party.
In January 2013, he was driven by the need to appease them, and in effect offered a deal embracing his Tory eurosceptics on the one hand, and his European partners on the other. To appease the former, he held out the prospect of a referendum by 2017 and, although vague on the details, coupled this to reforms in the EU. To try and get other European leaders on board, he promised to campaign for continued British membership, but in return demanded that they would accept at least part of his reform agenda.
“There is much talk in UK media and elsewhere of ‘whether we should stay in the EU’, but it’s not clear who ‘we’ is. Euroscepticism is more an English phenomenon than a British one, and varies regionally within England”
He succeeded in neither. Rather than gaining support from the rest of Europe, he took an assertive, bullying approach that had the opposite effect. Although he hedged his ‘deal’ with reservations and qualifications, it was still too pro-European for his party’s right-wingers, whose anti-EU agitation if anything increased.
For all these reasons, Cameron’s position shifted once again for political considerations rather than anything to do with principle. Driven by the increasing success of UKIP and coupled with growing disquiet among some sectors of the public, immigration rose sharply up the UK’s political agenda. So much so that it became almost the sole basis of Cameron’s attempts at renegotiation with EU partners.
That’s where matters now stand, with no clear resolution in sight. Other European leaders have made it clear that the principle of freedom of movement for EU citizens is inviolable. And there are unlikely to be any concessions that would demand treaty changes, so if there were to be a deal it would have to be limited in scope, and perhaps even confined to welfare benefits, not least because most aspects of welfare in fact remain in the hands of the member states. What David Cameron has not made clear, meanwhile, is whether in the event that he doesn’t get what he saw as a satisfactory offer he would actively campaign for leaving the EU.
“The outcome of a referendum would plainly be affected by events in the UK and beyond. Perhaps crucially, what happens in the rest of Europe could have a major impact”
Should there be a referendum, the outcome is as difficult to call as the results of May’s general election. Most observers see it depending mainly on the deal he and his fellow European heads of government might come up with. But I myself don’t think so. Matters are likely to be far more complex than that because of the diversity of the factors in play. Cameron is likely to remain caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Whatever deal is reached it will not be enough to assuage the passions of Tory eurosceptics; he has to be seen to ‘talk tough’ to his European partners, yet progress with those partners depends on conciliation and dialogue.
There is much talk in UK media and elsewhere of ‘whether we should stay in the EU’, but it’s not clear who ‘we’ is. Euroscepticism is more an English phenomenon than a British one, and varies regionally within England – it is not the majority view in London, where most surveys place Britain’s relationship with the EU quite low down among voters’ concerns, even if a majority also believe that a referendum on membership would be desirable at some point.
The outcome of a referendum would plainly be affected by events in the UK and beyond. Perhaps crucially, what happens in the rest of Europe could have a major impact. The UK has returned to growth, even if its rewards are hardly being equally shared and no one can say whether it will last. Elsewhere in the EU, a few states are performing well, but overall the risk of stagnation looms large. Will the interventionist policies now being put in place bear fruit? A return to a healthier overall economic environment across Europe would almost certainly have a positive impact on an unfolding referendum debate in Britain, but the reverse also applies.
Referendums are, on the face of it, among the most effective forms of democratic decision-making. In some senses that’s true, yet experience from around the world also shows they are far from free of problems and uncertainties. The outcome of a referendum can be strongly influenced by transient events of the moment, while much depends on the precise wording of the question being asked.
The Scottish referendum result seemed all the closer because the question was ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ rather than ‘Should Scotland remain part of the UK?’ Those who favoured change somewhat perversely became the ‘Yes’ campaign, which normally carries an advantage because of its positive overtones. There was little debate in Scotland about the issue of wording, but that’s highly unlikely to be the case with an in-out EU referendum. There could be an almighty battle about the wording, and also about whether a minimum turnout should be set for the result to stand. It seems unlikely that turnout will get anywhere near the stratospheric 80%-plus in Scotland. There is also the question of who would get to vote; UKIP has said that only British citizens should take part.
I am myself a pro-European. I want Britain to remain in the EU and to play a positive part in shaping its future. That’s the outcome that is plainly in the interests of the Union as a whole. Britain may have long been among the more awkward so far as the rest of the EU is concerned, but if it were to leave that would greatly diminish the Union’s standing economically and geopolitically.
Let us suppose that there’s going to be an in-out referendum in the UK. How, in that case, should pro-Europeans seek to influence the debate? The implications of leaving the EU must be brought home to the public. Brexit would be a huge leap into the unknown, very different from the eurosceptics’ rosy portrayal of a nation set free. Britain would be out of the EU, but still within its orbit. Its destiny will remain irretrievably European, the same being true of Switzerland, Norway and Iceland. Most of Britain’s trade would continue to be with the EU, but not under conditions that it could directly influence. The notion that the UK could turn to the Commonwealth, or suddenly spread its trading net far and wide, is a whimsical fantasy. There are, after all, no real barriers to doing so at the moment, and it has not happened. Germany now has a proportionately higher level of trade with India than does Britain.
A Britain outside the EU would not magically regain its sovereignty, for the term is meaningless if it can’t be defined as a nation’s real control over its own affairs, not simply paper rights. In today’s increasingly interdependent world, Britain has more influence as a member of the EU than it would otherwise, even when in some cases it is acting alone. The United States would clearly start to bypass Britain if it were outside the EU, and so too would other major states around the world.
To prosper, the country would have to be almost the diametric opposite of the image portrayed by UKIP and its leader Nigel Farage – a nation turning back to the 1950s. It would have to be more outward-looking and cosmopolitan, and of course be more open to immigration. The possibility that it is Scottish and Welsh votes that might keep Britain in the EU if there is a referendum is very real. If, though, Britain as a whole voted to quit, the Scots would this time probably decide to break away and seek to join up with the European Union.
Eurosceptics make a great play of the “burden” of bureaucracy imposed by EU membership. Yet viewed dispassionately, membership almost certainly reduces rules and regulations rather than multiplying them. And from trade right across to security, a country outside the Union would have to negotiate separate deals with countries inside and outside Europe, as well as with Brussels. Switzerland and Norway are in precisely this situation, and whatever advantages they might get, freedom from bureaucratic entanglement is not one of them.
If it turns out there is a UK referendum, there’s a range of possible Brexit and Bremain scenarios. First, there’s the ‘sleepwalking scenario’. Either because it is a rushed affair, or because the public remains largely indifferent, Britain leaves the EU without most citizens having understood what is at stake. Then there is the ‘wide awake’ scenario in which after a full and informed debate with a high turnout, the country nevertheless exits the EU. Scenarios for remaining in the Union range from ‘somnolent acceptance’ in which the majority of voters remain largely disengaged, but nevertheless vote to stay in, to the ‘positive endorsement’ one that sees a full and informed public debate, a high turnout and a clear vote to stay in. The last is obviously the best-case Bremain scenario in which citizens are more fully informed than before and are persuaded of the positive benefits of EU membership.
Some of the more vocal eurosceptics might be happy with the sleepwalking scenario, but by any token it is contrary to the public interest. It could only be justified by minimising the level of risk and readjustment that Brexit would involve, and by ignoring acceptable democratic process. Pro-Europeans might be satisfied with the ‘somnolent acceptance’ scenario, but again that would hardly be in the country’s best interests. Should the ‘wide awake’ scenario unfold, pro-Europeans obviously could not contest it, even though – because of the Scotland factor – the country that leaves may no longer be the UK. The key question for those who want Britain to stay in the EU is, therefore, if and how something close to the ‘positive endorsement’ scenario can be achieved.
“There are a good many pro-European groups across the country. They should suspend their differences and get together to shape the membership debate”
Right now, nobody can say whether Britain will stay in the EU; there are too many contingencies in play. What pro-Europeans can and should do is start preparing now for a possible referendum. To do so, a lot of innovations are needed. There are a good many pro-European groups across the country, of various persuasions in terms of what they see as the best models for the future evolution of the EU. They should suspend their differences and get together to shape the membership debate. The eurosceptics have been far more assertive in putting their case forward than have supporters of Britain’s continued membership, and it’s a bias that has to be corrected. Also, many of Britain’s leading europhiles are ageing, so up and coming younger figures must be found who can command attention in the public debate – and as far as possible they should span the political spectrum.
The eurosceptics are very clear about what they oppose, but not what they want instead. They must be pressed in debate to make explicit what they are for, what kind of Britain they envisage and how the country would, on its own, resolve the cluster of problems it would face. Exactly the same applies to pro-Europeans, as the Bremain campaign would have to be about far more than just a vote to stay in. It would have to be coupled to positive ideas about reform of the EU and Britain’s contribution to shaping those reforms. The question of British exceptionalism would also have to be faced up to, since unlike almost all other EU states the UK is not even formally on track to join the eurozone.
In pre-referendum campaigns, the role of the BBC would be crucial in promoting a full and fair debate. It is likely to come under enormous pressure from all sides, and if a referendum were to be held early on in the life of the next government, it could coincide with the renewal of the BBC’s Charter, itself a highly contentious and partisan issue. Strong leadership would then be needed from within the broadcasting organisation to ensure its impartiality. Britain is unlikely to be polarised in the way Scotland was during its referendum struggle, but there are nevertheless quite fundamental differences of outlook in play. It would certainly be far removed from the muted, low-key affair of the 1975 referendum that confirmed Britain’s membership. If it takes place, it will play out against a backdrop of increasingly fractious divisions within the EU, and of the national and regional fractures that now mark the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Europe’s World. Reposted per author’s permission.
European right politics thwarts the welfare state
In the last quarter of the last century, the social state phenomenon in Europe was developing when the left leaders were in power. Starting from the end of the century, the burden brought by the welfare state began to restrict it, starting from Germany. Right-wing governments that came one after another in Europe almost competed with each other in narrowing the social state phenomenon.
Leaders in Europe at the end of the century such as Olof Palme, Willy Brandt, Francois Mitterrand, Papandreou paid attention to the social state phenomenon.
In 1999, the Schröder-Fischer duo in Germany, social democrats and green people started to implement a policy to bring the market to life. They brought aid money to the unemployed, aiming to expand employment. Employment increased with the project named Hartz IV. Thereupon, they started policies that cut social spending.
This trouble that had already started in the Thatcher period in England was continued by the Conservatives during the Cameron period.
In France, Macron decided to change the use of cheap diesel fuel due to environmental problems by the people, who can only move with their own vehicles and benefit from diesel vehicles for this, in 36 thousand centers. However, public transport in France did not allow these people to travel cheaply from one place to another. There were also problems such as stopping by and passing through Paris instead of being able to go directly from one center to another. Therefore, this decision that Macron was trying to make to protect the environment caused serious reactions. The Yellow Vests movement rapidly spread throughout the country. When these events reached important clashes and car burnings in the demonstrations with intense participation in Paris at the end of last week, Macron, who returned from the G20, took back his decision that he did not seem to make any concessions until then by putting the Prime Minister into action.
But at the heart of the matter, it seems that serious measures are not taken against the increasing income inequality in France. The losing function of the social state in France is the most important reason for these resistances. French intellectuals publish reports on this.
Recently, the rise of the right in Sweden has caused many rights given in the name of the social state to be withdrawn one after another. Many of the rights that retirees acquire are no longer in question. Already in Europe, partners of the EU such as Hungary and Bulgaria, the right-wing administrations follow a government far from the social state.
As can be seen, the social state wind that blew in the last quarter of the last century in all of Europe has returned in the first quarter of this century. Social rights are being narrowed one by one. It is unknown how long these attitudes of the right-wing governments will continue.
Those who approach the issue in good faith put forward the fact that this period will end and the social state phenomenon will develop in Europe again with the coming to power of the left and the green with higher votes in the new period.
Let us wait and see what the close future will show us ..
The future of Europe depends on its neighborhood – UfM’s Nasser Kamel says
On July 1st, 2020, the Secretary-General of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), Dr. Nasser Kamel, participated in an international conference discussing the future of Europe. The event under the name FROM VICTORY DAY TO CORONA DISARRAY: 75 YEARS OF EUROPE’S COLLECTIVE SECURITY AND HUMAN RIGHTS SYSTEM was held at the historic setting of the eldest world’s Diplomatic Academy, that of Vienna, Austria. This gathering was organised by four partners; the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES), Media Platform Modern Diplomacy, European Perspectives Scientific Journal, and Action Platform Culture for Peace, with the support of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna.
In his highly absorbing keynote, Secretary General Dr. Kamel described the impact of the C-19 event as only amplifying the old issues and long-standing challenges within the Euro-Mediterranean theater. To this end, Excellency especially focused on the economic and environmental challenges faced by the Euro-MED. He recommended that sustainability and resilience should be at the core of the post-C-19 recovery, and gave an important piece of advice to European policymakers: if Europe is to become a global power, a positive engagement with its neighborhood – both east and south – will be of paramount importance. Hostilities and confrontation should be replaced by a decisive cooperation on the common future project. And such a project should include all EU/Europe neighbors without prejudices.
Reflecting on the global impact of C-19, Excellency Kamel stated that the pandemic has pushed the world to a new era, and that the repercussions of this crisis will be extremely far-reaching – not least in terms of economic activity, which is set to dramatically decrease at the global level. As for the Euro-Mediterranean more specifically, the UfM’s Secretary General noted that the region’s existing elements of fragility – most notably the high levels of inequality and the pressing climate change emergency – are set to worsen as a result of the pandemic. To counter the ensuing negative effects, Dr. Kamel advised, resilience must be built through a holistic approach that promotes at the same time an environmental, social, and economic recovery throughout the whole Euro-Mediterranean region.
Secretary General Kamel also touched upon the economic impact of the C-19 in the Euro-Mediterranean region. This impact – he noted – has been markedly uneven, as countries that were more dependent on Asian supply chains, for instance, have been hit harder and faster than others. Starting from this observation, the UfM’s Secretary General delved into the debate about the current economic model and its typical long supply chains. While refusing frontal attacks to globalization as an outdated concept, Dr. Kamel suggested that Euro-Mediterranean countries should increase their resilience and work better to ensure the solidity of their supply chains – for instance though what he called a “proximization”, or regionalization, of these chains. On this issue –he noted– the UfM Secretariat is currently working with relevant partners, including the OECD, as to explore the potential to create regional supply chains – hoping that this could lead to tangible development gains on both shores of the Mediterranean.
Besides the oft-discussed economic issues, the Secretary General’s contribution also sought to highlight the importance of environmental considerations, which risk slipping at the bottom of the agenda in times of economic crisis. Dr. Kamel stressed that the climate crisis is a reality that the Euro-Mediterranean region must inevitably face. A report developed by a large group of scientists from several different countries, supported by both the UfM and the United Nations Environment Programme, has highlighted that the impact of climate change in the Euro-Mediterranean is set to be particularly significant – just to quote one statistic, the region is warming 20% faster than the rest of the world. Hence, Secretary General Kamel stressed, the region’s post-pandemic recovery must be more sustainable – more green, blue, and circular – with a focus on enhancing the resilience of societies on both shores of the Mediterranean.
In his concluding remarks, Mr. Kamel decided to stress the interconnectedness of the Euro-Mediterranean region. The European continent is tightly linked to its neighborhood, he noted, both to the east and to the south. Hence, the future of Europe as a relevant economic, political, and geopolitical power depends on how proactive and engaging it will be with its immediate neighborhood – Dr, Kamel said. As for Europe to be prosperous, its neighborhood should be resilient, mindful of the environment, and more economically integrated. At the UfM – Secretary-General assured audience – that is the aim that everyone is hoping, and working, for.
In order to make the gathering more meaningful, the four implementing partners along with many participants have decided to turn this event – a July conference into a lasting process. Named – Vienna Process: Common Future – One Europe, this initiative was largely welcomed as the right foundational step towards a longer-term projection that seeks to establish a permanent forum of periodic gatherings as a space for reflection on the common future by guarding the fundamentals of our European past.
As stated in the closing statement: “past the Brexit the EU Europe becomes smaller and more fragile, while the non-EU Europe grows more detached and disenfranchised”. The prone wish of the organisers and participants is to reverse that trend.
To this end, the partners are already announced preparing the follow up event in Geneva for early October (to honour the 75th anniversary of the San Francisco Conference). Similar call for a conference comes from Barcelona, Spain which was a birthplace of the EU’s Barcelona Process on detrimental; the strategic Euro-MED dialogue.
Political Impacts of a Second Wave of Covid-19: Looking at Past Health Crises
Undoubtedly, a significant number of governmental reports, academic articles and op-eds about the Covid-19 and its likely future impacts in the world societies and economies have already been published. Though useful for planning, anyone attempting to establish prospective post-pandemic scenarios should – above all – be aware that this effort is filled with uncertainty as the repercussions of any contagious diseases are always dynamic. Namely, its reliance on constant evolving factors, is causing persistent shifts in its impacts principally for those of economic and political nature.
With this thought in mind, and as the doubts shrouding a possible second wave of this pandemic slowly erode, it seems important to look at historical instances of uncontrollable transmission of disease and to understand how deeply it can politically impact human societies, albeit contextualizing the obvious differences brought by time and different social and technological backgrounds. Still, having these aspects in consideration, it should be noted the common denominator that the current pandemic has with other historical health emergencies: the absence of medical countermeasures that can truly eliminate the disease.
In fact, the failure to produce an “effective, no side effects” Covid-19 vaccine so far, led Governments to implement quarantines, which from the Black Plague to the SARS epidemic, proved to be of the one of the few historically effective methods to slow the spread of disease. A report, published by the WHO in 2006, characterized the use of quarantines in the SARS 2003 epidemic to be “old fashioned and labour intensive” although effective as “these measures slowed the virus’ spread, and, in the end, contributed to its containment”. This lesson proves to be of particular importance in a time where the economic and social pressure to end lockdowns have succeeded in coercing Governments to ease the implemented containment measures, even if any positive outcomes of the latter are yet to be seen.
As stated by a report of the “Konrad Adenauer Center for International Relations and Security Studies” (KACIRSS) on the diseases’ impact on political stability, “a high level of virulent infectious diseases may even destabilize politically stable and economically strong countries, like European or North-American countries”, making relevant any effort of anticipating the reactions of the masses in the midst of a health emergency, so to contain any negative effects brought by it.
One of the most significant signs of political disruption caused by a pandemic event is the depletion of trust in elected leaders, as they seem unfit to tackle the challenges, which, if uncontained, may constitute as a prequel to a larger erosion of confidence in political institutions. This absence of trust leans on factors such as “high morbidity and mortality rates, a lack of medical knowledge and effective treatment options, and general unfamiliarity with the disease” that unchecked, could lead to higher “destabilizing effect of the disease as the population’s perceived (and real) risk increases.”
Case in point, as the plague in Athens, during the Peloponnesian War, took its toll on its population, historians reported a detrimental effect on Pericles leadership and other elements of the Athenian society, leading to anarchy and, ultimately, the end of its democracy. Similar conclusions could be drafted from the Black Plague, which had a significant impact on monarchical authority in Europe and other surrounding regions.
Taking these historical episodes into considerations, as we witnessed statements of political leaders downplaying the full impact of Covid-19, solely to later advocate – sometimes against scientific advice – a quick resumption of economic activity, it is important for these high dignitaries to remember that an unprepared society for a second wave will likely not be forgotten by its voters. Furthermore, this sort of impact should speak volumes for governments whose leaderships are near the end of their mandates or are based upon parliamentary coalitions that may no longer be viable within an unstable political context. Worse, in a time where social media and fake news are highly influential, this absence of political trust could be seen as an opportunity for populist political movements, as well as extremist groups, to gain momentum and harvest additional supporters for their causes. To this equation, we need to add profound financial repercussions that the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to have on international economies and, consequently, in the population’s discontentment, considering possible signs of lockdown fatigue if a return to status quo ante is required.
Consequently, a second Covid-19 wave, converged with an economic downturn, could carry another political effect, namely in terms of a State’s potential political regime change. Already mentioned examples of how the Athens plague undermined its democracy or how the Black Plague may have impacted feudalism in Europe need to serve as a testimony to democratic leaderships of how disease infested societies, if unchecked, may provoke/accelerate structural modifications in political regimes. Hopefully, recent decisions taken by a Central European government, still a formal democracy, may constitute only a temporary exception to the witnessed democratic progresses the world has seen during the past three decades.
Historical epidemic occurrences may also hold valuable lessons for the European Union (EU). Notwithstanding the obvious differences between the Catholic Church of the 14th century and the EU of today, both share the common denominator of being transnational entities with significant political influence on countries in Europe. Much has been written on the detrimental impact that the Black Plague had over the Catholic Church political influence in 14th century Europe, as the members of the clergy were unable to provide any answers to the needs of Europeans faced with rising casualties, causing a “decline in their confidence (…) of the institution of the Church”.
Less than seven centuries later, polls published by the European Parliament’s Public Opinion Monitoring Unit clearly state that “In Spain, 90% of respondents consider that the EU is helping “a little” or “not at all” to resolve the situation caused by pandemic” while “88% of Italians feel that the other EU countries are not helping Italy and 79% think the same of the EU institutions. Still, a relative majority (42,6%) do not want to leave neither the EU nor the Eurozone”. Given these numbers, it is becoming increasingly discernible that citizens of some Covid-19 hardly stricken countries questioned the EU’s lack of leadership or solidarity to support their Member-States when in dire situations. Doubts could also be raised on the possible political effects of a second Covid-19 wave on the EU – Member-States relationship, if health and financial consequences remain unaddressed.
But even though the real impact of this coronavirus crisis on the Italians’ opinion towards EU remains to be seen, the apologetic letter written by the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in an attempt to justify the initial paralysis of the European institutions while staring at the Italy’s health system collapse, appears to be a good omen. Furthermore, the EU leaders approval of a recovery fund to mitigate the deep financial and economic impacts of the pandemic are also vital steps, especially if the approved measures are proportionally beneficial to the affected Member-States and particularly their citizens, as otherwise a hypothetical second Covid-19 wave may prove to be more than just another obstacle in the path to Europe’s unity.
Finally, considering the profound international impacts of Covid-19, it is difficult not to envisage on how terrorists might be inspired by the detrimental effects of disease on societies and how deadly pathogens could provide a significant boost for their propaganda necessities. Even though bioterrorism, and its contributing factors, has been substantially addressed by academia and official reports, it is still important to understand that several of the technical barriers preventing the terrorist use of pathogens have decreased over the last two decades, so new approaches are in dire need.
In 2015, I co-authored an article with Anne-Yolande Bilala that addressed the possible beneficial effects brought by the implementation of a “Bioterrorism Prevention Initiative” for the mitigation of this particular threat. Regardless of any merits embedded in this proposal, it would be of crucial importance if initiatives with similar desiderata could see the light of day in a post Covid-19 security context, so to decrease any risks of nonstate actors producing, acquiring and/or disseminating biological agents.
The above mentioned historical events may also provide important lessons, in terms of a future pandemic preparedness, for Governments to grasp, the most notable being that Biodefense needs to become a de facto priority, while adopting and investing in a more preventive posture towards biological menaces, so to anticipate emergencies of global and catastrophic nature. Case in point, regardless of the billions of Euros invested on healthcare every year, “global postures remain primarily response-driven and reactive to a dynamic and volatile emerging disease landscape. New epidemics are often met with an emergency response, after-action reviews and a promise to rethink prevention.”
Serving as an additional testimony on the absence of structural changes over the last years, it is also important to remember the already mentioned WHO post-SARS report that concludes that “communicable diseases had been given insufficient attention, with doctors more interested in high-tech fields such as neurosurgery and molecular biology. Awareness levels were low and infection-control procedures had become slack. In sum, public-health systems were simply not ready for what happened.” A preventive posture to avoid the same scenario would entail, for example, improved synergies between health and military research facilities, and a substantial increase of financial resources for the latter institutions as well for universities, research centers, and the private sector so to monitor and develop new solutions aiming to tackle emerging diseases.
Finally, the preventive posture could also result in the formalization of a dual-use for national industries. One of the most positive aspects emerging from this pandemic episode was the ability for some industries and services to adapt their assembly lines in order to produce ventilators, masks and other PPE production. Although very commendable, the majority of these decisions were ad hoc and solely based on goodwill. A future proactive/preventive approach, in which Biodefense is a strategic cornerstone, will likely require that local industries– either within a national or regional context – have a pre-designated role for future pandemic episodes.
This “dual-use” purpose would likely require that Governments leverage lessons learned from the current pandemic, in order to anticipate needs, and negotiate with local industries what their future roles could be in a posterior health crisis. Such negotiation would call for exceptional skills in terms of planning, besides constant updates, as some companies may go bankrupt or transfer their facilities to another country. Nonetheless using a long term perspective to define the blueprints for the role of the civil society in a pandemic scenario may prove to be a fruitful exercise, as, when necessary, societies will be better prepared for a next catastrophic biological event.
When looking back in History to find other examples of epidemics, one could argue that the dimension of human fatalities was much larger or that the available scientific know-how to deal with the latter did not give societies sufficient countermeasures to tackle the disease. Both present valid points, but more important than lethality rates is the threat perception of the affected populations, the de facto origin of political instability, which in an age where information instantly travels across the globe and when efficient medical countermeasures against Covid-19 are still lacking, tends to be even more palpable.
As political leadership in democracies has, over the years, become a little more than a voters’ expectations management exercise, political stability in a time of pandemics is likely to be more dependent on how fast governments implement mitigation measures coupled with communication transparency by leaderships and the fact-based science behind unpopular decisions, instead of finger pointing/social dividing speeches that, ultimately, will only lead to ghastlier public health scenarios and to a widespread of social turmoil.
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The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has approved a $400 million policy-based loan to support reforms by the Philippine government aimed...
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