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Do Albanians like Fascism? An Iconographical Investigation on Social Media Material

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Far right groups with fascist-like ideologies and aesthetics are not rare in the Balkans. I am not referring to parties with nationalist and/or irredentist programs, which are quite standard in the Balkan political scene, but rather to movements that specifically identify with or make use of fascist and national-socialist symbols. Golden Dawn (Chrisi Avgi) in Greece is probably the most notable example of a Balkan far right organization that has openly made use of Nazi symbols and gestures. Other less successful political entities such as Serbian Action (Srbska Akcija), the Bulgarian National Union (Bālgarski Nacionalen Sājuz), the Croatian Party of Rights (Hrvatska Stranka Prava) and the New Right (Noua Dreaptā) in Romania have endorsed elements of fascist and national-socialist ideology. In the Albanian political scene, which is fragmented between Albania, Kosovo and Northern Macedonia, there are no organizations with fascist or Nazi heritage. However, the general rise of the far right that characterises the European continent could also concern Albania.

The Political Scene

I decided to focus on the question of whether Albanians liked Fascism when I came across the short documentary “How Mussolini Built the Albanian Road System” which was broadcasted by the local ABC News in 2019. In December 2019 the documentary was made available on YouTube. The film starts by showing images from an Italian propagandistic documentary of the 1930s which uses a triumphalist tone to depict the Italian contribution to the infrastructural development of Tirana. The voice over states that by highlighting the progress that fascist Italy had brought to Tirana, the Italian documentary was not lying. After a short review of the Italian investments in Albania during the interwar period (which started in 1925 with the foundation of the Society for Albanian Development [SVEA]), documentary comes to the conclusion that Albanians should be grateful to Italians because they built roads and buildings that Albanians enjoyed for several decades after the war.

In order to have a glimpse of the way in which Albanians perceive fascism it is interesting to look through YouTube users’ commentaries to the documentary “How Mussolini Built the Albanian Road System”. Several users claimed that Italy dedicated resources to the Albanian infrastructure for her sole interests and that she intended to colonize and assimilate Albanians. However, there are many comments that clearly support Italy’s presence in Albania. One commentator stated that if Italy had kept Albania for the fifty years of communist rule the country would have been much more developed. Another user states that Albanians were still using the infrastructure built by fascist Italy. Some comments praise Italy because her and Germany’s plan was to create ethnic Albania. Other users show support not simply to the benefits that fascism brought to Albania but rather to its ideology. A comment states that “(…) Mussolini was a great person”. Another writes “long live Mussolini and Hitler!!! Death to the communists and their allies that fought against Fascism!!!”. A user named “SS Skanderbeg” – the infamous SS division that Germans instituted in Kosovo in 1944 – shows his allegiance to the Albanian collaborationist regime by entering the flags of Italy, Albania and Germany conjoint to each other by the symbol “+”.

The authors of the documentary did not intend to praise Mussolini as much as they wanted to criticize the Albanian government. In the last four years the Socialist Party-led governments have undertaken a radical restyling of the centre of Tirana and some buildings that were built with Italian money and expertise have been demolished or are scheduled to be so. On June 2016, the “Qemal Stafa” stadium which was projected by Italian architect Gherardo Bosio in the late 1930s, was demolished and a new stadium was built on the same site. In the beginning of 2018, the government declared that the building that hosted the National Theatre which was projected by Giulio Berté, was going to be demolished in order to make space for a new theatre designed by Danish architect BjarkeIngels.

The discussion between supporters and detractors of the government has been characterised by populist speeches that have made constant reference to the alleged “fascist” heritage of the Tirana centre. On August 31, 2014 Gazeta Dita praised the effort of the government that was working to give back the (currently named) “Nënë Tereza” square its original identity, as it was conceived by “fascist” architect Gherardo Bosio. This article shows that until August 2014, the alleged “fascist” character of some buildings was not considered in negative terms. The attitude of the government toward the heritage of the interwar period changed in the later period. In the beginning of 2018, the Mayor of Tirana ErjonVeliaj claimed in the TV show “Opinion” that the building of the National Theatre was part of the fascist heritage and for this reason as well as for its structural fragility it deserved to be demolished. Veliaj was contradicted by the other guests of the show, including the host Blendi Fevziu who claimed that if it were not for fascist Italy there would have been no Tirana at all. The presenter intended to say that it is necessary to distinguish between the consequences of fascist occupation of Albania and the contribution that fascist Italy’s architects have brought to Tirana. The news about the possible demolition of the building generated apprehension among Italian journalists. Exit.al (February 19, 2018) affirmed that the Albanian government was targeting these monuments in order to delete the tracks of the Italian past of the country. An article on ilfattoquotidiano.it (July 15, 2018) commented the events by citing Indro Montanelli’s controversial work Albania una e mille in which the author states that Tirana is a city without a past. To some Italians the presence of “fascist” buildings generates a sentiment of national grandeur that serves to instil a sense of self-confidence vis-à-vis Albanians and Albania. The National Theatre affair is currently in a stalemate and its future is unknown.

The majority of Albanians who live in Tirana do not question the kind of “heritage” that the city buildings represent. In 1991 the mob brought down the statue of former dictator Enver Hoxha and threw stones to public buildings. However, such acts were determined by peoples’ dissent against the symbols of a political system that was still in charge and that they perceived as the direct cause of their political and economic problems. More recently, Albanians have only questioned the heritage of the urban environment when they were pushed to do so by political parties. In 2010 the Democratic Party-led government projected to demolish the pyramid-shaped building at the centre of Tirana. In that occasion the decision to bring down the edifice was based on the fact that it was built to honour the dictator Enver Hoxha. The Socialist Party – which was at the opposition – organized public protests and the demolition was not carried through. The story is now repeating itself but with inverted roles. The debate concerning the demolition of the National Theatre building shows that the actual government led by the Socialist Party has elaborated the discourse of the “fascist” heritage of such building to increase popular support. The same process might have triggered the opinions that characterised the majority of comments written below the documentary “How Mussolini Built the Albanian Road System”. Several users probably praised the works of fascist Italy in Albania because they were influenced by the documentary’s anti-government nuances. However, few comments seem to have been written by persons that sympathise with national-socialist and fascist ideologies. It is not possible to certify the authenticity of the affirmations made on YouTube, but the strong anti-communist sentiment that pervades the opinions of many persons, the spread of subcultures, and the myth of the Great Albania (which however enjoys very limited popularity in Albania), might push the followers of the local rightwing to identify with the political heritage of the continental far right.

The Ultras Scene

In the last two decades, the ultras subculture is becoming particularly popular in Albania and in the other Balkan countries where Albanians live. The iconographical investigation of some Facebook content shows that at least a part of the ultras makes conscious use of fascist and national-socialist symbols. KF Tirana or “Tirona” (as it is pronounced in the local dialect) has one of the most active fan community in the Albanian-speaking Balkans. The major Tironatifo groups are the “Tirona Fanatics” which was established in 2006 and the “Capital Crew” which was more recently created. All Tirona ultras groups are fierce anti-communists. In analogy to other far right organizations in Europe, Tirona ultras propagate revisionist history by denying that the Albanian capital was freed by the communists on November 17, 1944. Instead they claim that the true occupation started on that date. The anti-communist attitude is presented as an original character of any Tirona fan since Selman Stermasi, who was one of the leading figures of the club during the interwar period, resigned in 1946 after that the communist regime changed the name of the club from SK Tirana to “17 Nëntori”. The Tirona ultras’ aversion to communism emerges especially when their team plays against Partizani. FK Partizani was founded in 1946 and was originally the sporting club of the Albanian army. Tirona ultras have exposed banners with drawings of partisans being executed. In 2014 current vice prime minister ErjonBraçe claimed that Tirona fans were fascists because they used anti-communist slogans and exposed a banner addressed to Partizani fans in which it was written “for you we open Auschwitz again.” While many Albanians condemned the attitude of the Tirona supporters, on the comments sections of the Albanian online newspapers, some readers affirmed that Germans have always been allies of Albania and that the abovementioned SS Division Skanderbeg fought for ethnic Albania. Erjon Braçe continues to expose Tirona fans for their alleged fascism and has consequently become one of their major subjects of mockery.

The Facebook pages of the Tirona ultras have never made any written reference to fascism. However, in analogy to other European ultras groups, they have adopted symbols and attitudes that recall the fascist and national-socialist ideology. Well-known slogans in use by continental far right groups such as “better dead than red” and “good night left side” often appear in the stadiums and on the Facebook accounts. The “Capital Crew” has recently posted an artistic image of two persons tattooed with swastika and Celtic cross who beat another person who has a hammer and sickle tattoo. Pictures of Celtic crosses and of persons holding flags with this symbol have been posted on Facebook pages of Albanian and Kosovar ultras. Some groups of the Tirona ultras regularlytake pictures while making the roman salute. They have also used the eagle symbol of the Third Reich to make a banner that was printed on t-shirts. The iconographic analysis indicates that ultras might be consciously exploiting the symbols the national-socialist heritage of Albanian-speaking regions. The ultras of “Tirona Fanatics”, Skopje “Shvercerat” and Prishtina “Plisat” have adopted a flag that portrays a white double-headed eagle on a black background. Although the eagle is stylized in several different forms, the flag is highly reminiscent of the one that was used as the banner of the SS Division Skanderbeg in 1944.

Being ultras means – to a certain extent – being rebels and sympathizing with the anti-democratic far right can be considered a form of rebellion. However, sympathizing with the far right in the Balkans does not necessarily mean to act as a far right sympathizer would in Western Europe.Unlike many Western European homologues, Albanian ultras have advertised the consumption of weed which, like beer, underscores the pursue of fun and liberation. The Tirona Fanatics subgroup “Danoçat” have exposed a sarcastic banner baring the word “Brrakistan” and a marijuana leaf. The members of FC Shkupi “Shvercerat” often show a banner saying “Republic of Çair” with a mariujana leaf. Both Brrak and Çair are neighbourhoods respectively in Tirana and Skopje. Differently from Western European football ultras and in analogy to Balkan ultras, some Albanian hardcore football fans use their religion to remark their sense of belonging. During the match KF Laçi- KF Tirana in May 2019, a group of Tirona Fanatics chanted “Allahu Ekbar”. The media and several Tirona supporters criticized the act which was considered a provocation since Laç is populated by a catholic majority. The Tirona Fanatics made an official statement claiming that the chant was spontaneous and was meant to salute Muslim supporters for the Ramadan festivity. The event was however unusual and led the Albanian antiterrorism forces to make an investigation. It can be speculated that there is a historical connection between Tirona Fanatics and militant Islamism since the term “fanatic” evokes the revolt that characterised central Albania between 1914 and 1915 and which was later called by historians the “rebellion of the fanatics”. The leaders of the revolt wanted Albania to be ruled by a Muslim prince and forced the designated Christian prince Wilhelm zu Wied to leave the country. However, any reference that the Tirana ultras could have made to this event is in my opinion sardonic or unintentional. The administrators of the Facebook page have shown a fair attitude toward all major religions that are practiced in Albania. In June 2016, when the war in Syria was mounting, a group of Tirona Fanatics posted a picture in which they were wearing a t-shirt that said “Fuck ISIS”. Earlier, the Facebook page Albanian Ultras expressed sorrow for the Dinamo Zagreb fan Tomislav Salopek who was killed by ISIS in 2015. However, it is still difficult to understand why football supporters bring up a potentially divisive topic for Albanians such as religion.

Conclusions

In the interwar period the Tirana governments relied on Italy’s assets to develop infrastructure and in the 1930s the country was highly exposed to Italian culture. During World War II the country was ruled by fascist Italy from 1939 to 1943 and then by Nazi Germany until 1944. The Nazi-Fascist regimes annexed territories of present day Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia to their puppet state in order to obtain the support of the Albanian nationalists. Albanian official historiography has always condemned the collaborationist regimes and has seldom given recognition to Italy – let alone Mussolini – for the infrastructural works that were accomplished in Albania. The documentary “How Mussolini Built the Albanian Road System” shows that some journalists and academics have started to think differently. The instrumental use that governments make of the interwar infrastructural heritage that was built with the support of the Italians, will encourage the development of diametrical views. This short enquiry has shown that in Albania there are no organizations with far right ideologies and programs but there are individuals that sympathize with fascist ideologies and there are subcultures that endorse at least part of such ideologies. If Albania and the Balkans continue to be isolated by the rest of the continent, it is likely that more people in the region will be attracted by the dark charms of the far right.

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European right politics thwarts the welfare state

Muratcan Isildak

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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 .. 

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The future of Europe depends on its neighborhood – UfM’s Nasser Kamel says

Guido Lanfranchi

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Secretary-General, Dr. Kamel addressing the Vienna Conference while honoring the 25th anniversary of the Euro-MED process.

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.

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Political Impacts of a Second Wave of Covid-19: Looking at Past Health Crises

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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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