The role of institutions across Europe was redefined during the pandemic. As the world moves towards a Covid-free reality, we must ask ourselves, is this the start of a new political era?
As our world slowly but inevitably searches for a version of post-COVID-19 reality that can resemble the world we used to know before February 2020, obvious questions regarding the future naturally arise in public discourse and everyday conversations. The essence of our curiosity is summarized by a simple inquiry: when will we go back to our pre-pandemic lives?
From a merely logistical standpoint, we are undoubtedly already on the path to our conception of normality again. Universities and schools across Europe have started the academic year with mostly in-person teaching and, on September 14th, Bocconi students received the news that exams will be held in presence during the October session for the first time since the winter session of 2019. Events, concerts and other social gatherings are re-entering our daily routine, and high vaccination rates across Europe suggest that, if the vaccines are as effective in preventing the development of the most harmful forms of the disease as the data gathered so far shows they are, we have no rational reason to fear the imposition of another lockdown anytime soon.
Sure, the masks are still very much a part of our routine, and in Italy as well as many other European countries, the Green Pass is necessary to participate to many aspects of our daily lives, so we cannot say we are fully back in a world where COVID-19 does not affect us at all. For the most part, though, we seem to be on the right track.
Despite the justified optimism that regards the more material aspects of our lives, though, it is hard to ignore some of the changes that were observed during the last eighteen months. Some, in fact, have a high chance of leaving a long-term, possibly even permanent mark on our mentality. It is likely that we are just starting to scratch the surface when it comes to analyzing them, and that as time passes and developments in different interest areas and their correlation with the pandemic are studied, these issues will become more self-evident to the public.
An aspect of our society that has been subject to a seemingly significant change that we are likely to be bound to have to confront going into the future, though, is the shift in the approach of democratic institutions to decision-making processes whose outcomes directly affect each of us.
In particular, what emerges from a superficial analysis of the past year and a half in Europe is that when a national-scale or, as in this case, global-scale emergency arises, decision-making processes change. The institutions’ democratic approach to policymaking, which is supposed to be characterized by a continuous confrontation between the parties represented in Parliament followed by a majority vote whose modes vary depending on the specifics of the country, collapses. In Europe, most of the decisions regarding COVID regulations, especially in the initial phases of the pandemic, were issued without the countries’ Parliaments’ involvement, through instruments that not only had hardly ever been employed for such big-scale decisions, but that in the eyes of some bordered the government’s constitutional rights with respect to its citizens. In Spain, the estado de alarma (state of alarm) declared in March of 2020, a legal instrument that allows the Spanish government to limit some of the fundamental rights of its citizens if the situation requires it and that was used to impose the first lockdown, was even declared unconstitutional by the Spanish Constitutional Court a few months ago.
The reason behind such modus operandi by the various governments is very clear and hard to disagree with: decisions had to be made quickly and involving the Parliament would have taken too much time, precious time that could not be lost given the lack of information we had regarding the nature of the virus and the potential magnitude of its impact. This simple, logically functioning argument, however, has some problematic implications. Does it mean that democracy works only for as long as the country is in peaceful times, while when an emergency arises, it is acceptable for the government to make big decisions independently from the Parliament, which is de facto supposed to be a microcosmic summary of the will of the citizens of the society of the country they represent?
Among other things, the first lockdown in 2020 was characterized by periodic public appearance of the heads of governments in online press conferences where they would announce the latest restrictions to their citizens. From Giuseppe Conte in Italy to Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom to Emmanuel Macron in France, these press conferences became crucial in citizens’ routines. It was a necessary form of communication, possibly the only acceptable way that leaders had to get messages across to their citizens, but in the grand scheme of things, was it fully non-problematic?
Having most of your citizens stuck at home and periodically appearing on TV to update them on what their life is going to be like for the following few weeks is a method that has no precedent in recent history. Of course, the situation required this, and it was our duty as citizens to do our part and follow the restrictions to avoid spreading the virus, and most of us did. Then, when vaccines came along, it was our duty as citizens to get vaccinated both for ourselves and for our community, and in Western Europe, most of us did. Science has shown that it was thanks to these collective actions that we were able to limit casualties and are now on track to leave the pandemic behind us, at least when it comes to being able to participate to most normal everyday activities. Therefore, the approach chosen by the institutions worked, and we should be grateful to them for employing it.
However, exactly because what happened in the past eighteen months has no precedent in recent history, it is worth wondering if our consideration of democracy is going to change going forward, and if the memory of the centrality that leaders have had in citizens’ life during the past year will play a role in the next round of elections in various countries. It is worth noting, for example, that the current Italian government, led by the former head of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi, a unitary, technocratic government that was installed in January, despite being a non-elected government and despite being among the European governments that made the most drastic decisions regarding vaccinations and the green pass, as of July, had an approval rate of 68% among Italian citizens. To put it in perspective, at that same time Boris Johnson’s approval rate was 39% and Emmanuel Macron’s was 40%. It may of course be an isolated case, but seeing that citizens seem to prefer a strong figure they did not elect making drastic decisions for them is for sure worth noting.
It is hard to say if this has any implications for the future of Italy and other European countries. The legislature in which Mario Draghi’s government is operating is scheduled to end in 2023, so there is time for his approval rate to potentially go down as the COVID-19 situation improves if it is true that the current high number is solely a consequence of being in a state of emergency, but with the most uncertain elections in decades having just taken place in Germany without having a clear winner, with very uncertain elections coming up in France, the European political scenario could drastically change. It is worth wondering whether in a few decades we will be looking back at these 18 months as the period in which European Politics changed forever, and how we will be evaluating such a change.
We must not forget that, at least in Western Europe, we operate under the assumption that democracy is the best form of governing there is, but until no more than a century ago, democracy was considered the weakest form of government. Of course, between now and then we endured two world wars, which arguably embodied all the shortcomings of autocratic rule and after which democracies were established in most of Europe. Is the magnitude of the pandemic really not big enough to bring about new change? Few of us hope or think that we will revert to authoritarian rule anytime soon, but it is not unlikely that we are living through the start of a new political era. And as the citizens of tomorrow, it is our job to define it.