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The power of fear

With the virus came fear. It is known to be a poor counsellor and the cause of a thousand ills. History teaches us this; political science protects us from it.

Yet it is indeed fear that has led to the sequestration of half of humanity. For a short while the whole of Europe was convinced. But has our reaction been uniform and will it be like this that we emerge from the crisis?

Italy was the first to adopt the Chinese method, terrified by the degree of contagion that struck Lombardy. But this was applied to its entire territory, showing an unsuspected taste for a centralisation that the even Middle Kingdom did not dare to adopt.

It was soon followed by France, then Spain, and many others, as they introduced incredibly harsh regimes depriving people of their liberty. Since the "Black Death" (1346) and the "Plague of Marseille" (1720), which impacted European demographics long term, the use of "health passes" had ceased to exist. They have now reappeared.

But not all EU Member States reacted in the same way. While almost all of them have favoured vain national withdrawal, in the absence of a common European umbrella, the paths they have followed have differed according to the degree of confidence enjoyed by those in power, the efficiency of the State system and the level of social and political consensus.

The countries lacking confidence have quite transparently added to this, thereby dangerously increasing the fear felt by their citizens, who have bathed from morning to night in the statistics of death. Moreover, they have relied on scientists, who have scrambled desperately to describe how we should fight a virus with which they are unfamiliar. Finally, governments wanted to show that they were taking action, by imposing severe coercive measures, which have barely been debated in parliament, adding to the population’s dissatisfaction and their concern for their freedom and liberties.

Those Member States in which public policies functioning more smoothly have been both more modest, less vocal and much more effective. In these countries, public action generally involves, with no a priori, the public and private sectors, which support each other. They organise healthy competition, including in the health sector. Debate between central and decentralized authorities is not feared. These are regimes in which power is voluntarily divided, systematically shared at both national and local levels.

The result is very positive in times of crisis. These societies are more peaceful, do not like conflict and always strive to seek consensus. Their relative social and political peace then becomes a precious asset.

For these qualities and defects have nothing to do with the north-south or east-west divisions of Europe. They have to do with the institutions of each country, with their traditions, but also with the modernity of their political debates. This diversity has once again given Europe a poor image, with little emphasis on unity and solidarity.

To overcome crises of this nature, Europeans would do well to look twice. These national differences have shown that in the long term our governments are no longer able to withstand these fears alone. A disorderly exit of confinement will come at a price in addition to that of an economic crisis provoked by national reactions to fear. The fear of those in power of being criticised or even judged, and the fear of the citizens of being contaminated.

Some have suspended freedoms to a degree that many would dream of in totalitarian regimes, parliaments have been muted, the ability to come and go prevented, social life interrupted, economic activity suspended. For others, more constrained by their history, their constitutions and their laws, the pressure of fear has been no less; it has pushed them to close borders and to cultivate a quasi-nationalist discourse that they know is contrary to their interests. Yet European democracies have always favoured and guaranteed the individual freedoms that are part of their identity. Together, they can form a calmer and more reasonable force, better able to count in the great game of the powers fighting for supremacy.

Collective action, at European level, around common institutions in tune with the citizens, would have freed our governments more readily from fear, enabling them to act more effectively, but above all with greater restraint. The citizens would then have been able to take greater ownership of this political area, whose main virtue must remain that of not yielding any of its principles to fears and fantasies.