Blog Post by Aleksandre Zarubica, ELF
This blogpost looks back at ELF’s webinar series “Liberties in Lockdown” which took place in April, May and June 2020.
Since March 2020 and the beginning of the confinement measures in Europe, Covid-19 has caught the full attention of journalists, researchers, political leaders and citizens. This crisis is arguably without precedent and is quite likely to have a long-lasting impact on our lives and societies. But while attention has focused on the progress of the virus, one of the worrying side-effects of the pandemic was the loss of rights and fundamental freedoms resulting from governmental measures across the continent and beyond. If health is a right guaranteed by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the spread of an unknown disease made health the most important right in the eyes of many, without raising much debate about its impact on other fundamental rights. Conflicts between these rights is nothing new or unknown, but the scale to which the new coronavirus created an imbalance between different freedoms is worrying. In an attempt to better understand the consequences and the impact of Covid-19 on our freedoms, ELF launched its weekly online series Liberties in Lockdown which allowed experts and liberal leaders to discuss and to explore the multi-facetted degradation of these rights.
A recurrent appeal made through the series was the need for better protection of every right in a time of pandemic. However, Covid-19 did not bring anything new in terms of threatening fundamental rights. It was rather a catalyst exposing and aggravating worrying trends, gaps and dangers which have existed for years, but which became worse during the management of the crisis in many countries. Marginalisation of the elderly, equal access to education, protection of private data, restrictions to the EU’s four freedoms, sufficient framework and funds for ensuring free media… Literally closing our doors for such a long time has had important consequences on the quality of our lives, on our plans for the future, and on the hard-won progress that we had been making vis-a-vis restrictions of our freedoms.
The succession of debates in the Liberties in Lockdown series revealed a certain common thread. The need for measures taken to confront the pandemic to be reasonable – proportional, targeted and limited in time – was one of the major lines drawn. By crossing these lines, some governments – such as the one of Victor Orban – are putting democratic and liberal values at risk, which goes against the very core of what the EU stands for. Hence the importance of keeping checks and balances in place. Indeed, under the pretext of needing faster actions, many governments marginalised parliaments across the continent while increasing their own powers. Whilst urgent action is understandable, it is important that parliaments keep playing their role of scrutinising the executive to ensure an appropriate evaluation of the measures taken by the government and the good reestablishment of freedom-friendly rules. Unfortunately, in times when people are told to stay at home, and with the media focused on the evolution of the pandemic, it is difficult for citizens and opposition parties to call for demonstrations and pressure leaders, adding even more defective democratic rights in the picture.
The EU’s role and capabilities in this crisis were considered insufficient on several occasions in the various debates. Often, calls for the EU to step in and protect civil, political and Human Rights were made. Several missed opportunities occurred during this first part of 2020, whether in terms of coordinating the answer to Covid-19, in overseeing a smarter closure of internal borders or in ensuring the respect for Rule of Law and fundamental rights within the EU’s territory. The EU could have shone in its natural role as a coordinator during this pandemic, but the lack of political will coming from the member states prevented this.
The eleven debates also included other topics whether directly related or not to the protection of these freedoms. Covid-19 indeed gave a window for more reflexion on what future we want for Europe and its citizens, with an opportunity to reshape our priorities in terms of policies and investments. It has been an opportunity to promote ideas which were divisive in the past as well; for instance, new environmental and economic policies could be a solution for creating jobs and reviving businesses. Overall, the idea that the crisis will have a long-term effect on our societies is reflected in many aspects such as the concept of essential jobs being revisited, or the role of digitalisation and teleworking in a working environment.
Since we do not have an existing model or experience of a pandemic on such a scale, it is therefore our role to anticipate long-term strategies to prevent the failures, the level of unpreparedness and the attacks on our freedoms we saw in many countries from happening again. Covid-19 is a virus infecting not only infecting European citizens but also European democracies, by limiting our rights and endangering liberal values. This crisis should therefore be seen as a window of opportunity for more reflexion and dialogue on the efforts to be made to protect our freedoms. The Liberties in Lockdown series, with 8,000 viewers across platforms by the end of June, proved that interest for our liberties is still strong and that in a context where they are threatened, we as liberals must remain at the forefront to advocate them.
Aleksandre Zarubica is Project Intern at the European Liberal Forum.
List of “Liberties in Lockdown” webinars:
Episode I: Is your data going viral?
Episode II: Business with new borders
Episode III: Is the coronavirus infecting free speech?
Episode VI: Keeping the faith during COVID-19
Episode VII: My home is not my castle: Cybersecurity and COVID-19
Episode VIII: Please mind the (generational) gap
Episode IX: Back to what future: Work and COVID-19
Final Episode: Policing the pandemic: Freedom of assembly and COVID-19