THE Hour of Europe! by Álvaro Vasconcelos
The pandemic has not suspended the imperious struggle for democratic governance throughout the European Union, despite the repugnant statements of the Dutch government about Spain. The crows and ravens of our imagination, in short, are not just harbingers of the pandemic calamity we face; they also continue to symbolise the threat to our democratic way of life posed by nationalism, neo-fascism and the populism of the extreme right.
Yet these anxieties risk being forgotten because our existential fears have been transformed into terror through the sensationalist publicity which daily recounts the macabre pandemic death toll, as if it were the latest calamitous fall in the stock market. In my street in Lisbon, where I – like everybody else at high risk, as we are endlessly reminded – must be confined, my neighbour, whose television constantly blares out the latest news, repeatedly warns me of the terrible and fearful future that awaits us. He is consumed by fear of the virus, certainly, but increasingly he also fears a future of misery in the recession to come, which promises to be the largest since the devastation of the 1930s.
In Europe, governments have sought to channel these fears by imposing emergency measures to combat the pandemic and making calls for “national unity”. Furthermore, many of them, as socialists and political centrists, are heirs to the principles that were embodied in the welfare state. As a result, they want to take action to secure the wages of those of us who are ‘confined’ and to save the businesses upon which our economies depend. Our leaders couch the struggle to recover the future they seek in the language of conflict and in the bombastic rhetoric of the victorious. Those are dangerous metaphors, harking back to an earlier age before we appreciated the dangers of extremist collectivism. After all, the Spanish ‘Flu pandemic was a century ago and the Black Death now belongs to our history books.
Yet one surprising consequence of the hysteria over COVID-19 has been the marginalisation of the extreme right in Europe, for their racist bluster has been pushed aside by our anxieties over the pandemic and by government rhetoric and interaction with our response to it. It will have, however, every intention of recovering from its marginalization and reoccupying the centre-stage. We should not forget that, originally, the extreme right in Europe surmounted the political centre-stage through its anti-Muslim and anti-migrant rhetoric, against the background of the war on terror and the clash of civilizations and the language of the fundamental split between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ that accompanies every war.
Now it is trying to transform the struggle against the pandemic into a racist crusade. Thus Matteo Salvini claimed that the COVID-19 virus had been introduced by African migrants and Donald Trump harangued against the “Chinese virus”. The American president also took special measures against migrants, ostensibly to protect the American population from them. Even Greece’s rightwing government declared that the refugees trying to enter the country could bring the virus with them.
The extremist movement is also trying to exploit the current state-of-emergency to its advantage. Its leaders hope that the emergency measures introduced by Europe’s governments to counter the pandemic – which inevitably limit our freedoms – will accustom us to the idea that autocracy is the system that best protects us and our interests. They apparently believe that, by exacerbating a security discourse based on catastrophe and conspiracy theories, they may persuade us that autocracy, similar to what is practiced in China, is what we need for security. China, after all, although it began by trying to conceal that a new coronavirus had emerged, switched to tough measures of social control instead, articulated through mobile telephones and facial recognition technology.
Viktor Orbán, the autocratic premier of Hungary, has shown how the far right intends to take advantage of the crisis. He has imposed an unlimited state-of-emergency through the Hungarian parliament which grants the government hegemonic power and powerfully penalizes journalists who challenge it. Hungary is becoming, in short, the first dictatorship in the European Union!
Yet, at the same time, the European extreme right must live in some fear of the excesses of its friends abroad. European public opinion may well be repulsed by the obscurantism and scientific illiteracy of personalities such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. President Trump, determined not to lose the presidential elections in November, decided to drap himself in the robes of a war president. But Trump and Bolsonaro deliberately downgraded the severity of the pandemic in the United States and the death toll it renders, simply to protect financial interests and the stock market.
The democratic alternative
Yet, whether it is ultimately successful or not in this project to impose itself as a dominant element in the European political scene, the reality is that rightwing extremism is itself a virus within the European democratic arena. To defeat such a virus in a democracy, to overcome the paralysis that the terror that it generates can create, it is essential to trust the people, ensure that information is accurate, and that ‘exceptional measures’ can only be of limited duration and always applied with respect for the rule-of-law and freedom-of-information. That and that alone, will extirpate the rightwing virus within. The way in which the European Union acts now will be critical in determining the outcome of this very difficult challenge facing Europe’s liberal democracies.
The Union, despite its initial hesitation, has taken unprecedented steps to protect its financial system and the Single Market. But they are still insufficient; debt in Europe must be mutualised, through ‘corona bonds’, despite German, Dutch, Austrian and Finnish objection, as they should have learned from the Euro-crisis after 2010. There must be an emergency European budget to protect all Europeans without exception and to help those countries most in need. The Union, too, must overcome its incomprehensible reluctance to provide humanitarian aid to those of its members who need it. After all, it has been more than willing to engage outside Europe in the past; why now has it neglected Italy’s anguished appeals? Why now should it leave it to Russia or China to provide humanitarian relief instead? As Jacques Delors has said, a lack of solidarity will be a mortal danger for the European Union – for if we don’t stand together, we will fall together!
Neo-fascists hope that the crisis will strengthen nationalism and leave the race to be won by the strongest alone. They hope, too, that the European borders that are closing today will not open once again. And, finally, they hope that the European Union and international organizations in an interdependent world will fail to protect us. But another outcome is possible for a more democratic and fraternal Europe could emerge from this pandemic, freed from the crippling dogma of neo-liberalism, more effective and more determined to defend life in our shared home that is the Earth. In short, a Europe that is a community of democratic nations may once again become a beacon of hope for all of the world.