European Hustle

Dangerous times, and only more to come?

The coronavirus pandemic is troublesome enough – but does the politicisation of the crisis only mean more trouble lies ahead in the post-COVID-19 world? From nationalist leaders using the need for order to their advantage to the deepening divisions within the EU, is the full impact of this crisis yet to come?

Last week, Yuval Noah Harari wrote an opinion piece in the Financial Times on the state of the world after the Corona crisis. And in typical Harari fashion, he managed to link the post-corona times to an opportunity for demagogues to stand up amidst crisis and stay on long after.

He wrote how biotechnology could provide us with easy answers to health crises, allowing states to monitor someone’s potential deterioration long before any symptoms pop up, but all the while handing your biological data over to a government with extraordinary powers.

If that sounds rather Orwellian to you, bear in mind that this tends to be the outlook Harari fashions. However well written his bestsellers “Homo Deus” and “Sapiens” are, the ‘intellectual rockstar’ as he is sometimes called, has a tendency for the bleak. To take his words with a pinch of salt, and as a warning not of what will happen, but of what could happen, is therefore paramount. 

Until a few days ago, when Viktor Orban’s Hungary passed a law granting him extraordinary powers in ‘times of crisis’ – a time obviously not predetermined considering current affairs. The bill had the whole opposition voting against it, which was a meagre display of voting powers in itself, as it passed with 137 against 53 votes. This bill prohibits by-elections and referenda for as long as the crisis situation endures.

Although the biotechnological superstate remains hypothetical, these developments do not bode well for the future of democracy. In addition, it seems as though Orban also read Harari’s piece, as he appeared to act with the main take away in mind:

‘A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population.’

Now I’m guessing Orban saw the chance of being able to go as far as implanting biosensors in his people as slim, and instead acted on the ‘well-informed’ part: His bill aims to fight off ‘misinformation,’ but by effectively restricting free speech –  with penalties ranging to up to five years in prison. This example clearly sets out how a crisis like this one can be a danger for democracy.

In Belgium, a country often considered ‘ungovernable,’ decisions are being taken in light of the Corona crisis in timespans that would be unthinkable under ‘normal’ circumstances. This is not an undemocratic way to govern, but it shows that in this crisis, the short-term action tends to prevail.

It also gives little hope for a rethinking of society where it should, after this crisis passes. The EPP showed their potential for respecting the absolute values of democracy and free speech, as thirteen Christian-democratic parties signed an open letter requesting the Hungarian Fidesz Party to be kicked out of the EU Fraction. 

A crisis like this one tends to put a lot of things in perspective. In Belgium, the squabbles between Flemish and French-speaking, and between left and right were quickly put aside in reacting to the needs of the people. However, infringing on democratic values ought not to be a part of such a game plan.

In the volatile times we find ourselves in, with an impending financial crisis looming, it bodes well for us all to keep certain values in mind would we want to move past this era in history. 

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