Multi-speed Europe becomes reality as continent emerges from lockdown

PUBLISHED: 11:44 28 May 2020 | UPDATED: 11:44 28 May 2020

People enjoy a drink at a bar's terrace on Campo dei Fiori in central Rome, on May 18, 2020 as the country's lockdown is easing after over two months, aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 infection, caused by the novel coronavirus. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP) (Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images)

People enjoy a drink at a bar's terrace on Campo dei Fiori in central Rome, on May 18, 2020 as the country's lockdown is easing after over two months, aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 infection, caused by the novel coronavirus. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP) (Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images)

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JASON WALSH reports on how countries across Europe are taking their first tentative – and tense – steps out of the shadow of coronavirus.

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EU politics appears to be working again. After a chaotic start, with countries fighting over vital supplies of protective equipment, somehow French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel hammered out a deal that will not see southern Europe hung out to dry.

No small achievement given the sorry history of the 2008 economic crisis, not to mention the domestic pressures faced by both.

Macron, a hero to British liberals, is a divisive at home: to the right he is an interloper and, to the left, the embodiment of the dismantling of France’s welfare state, just another empty suit preaching austerity.

Just how much austerity he can now demand having pumped hundreds of billions into the French economy remains to be seen, of course.

The conservative Merkel, meanwhile, has broken from German tradition of saying no to offering a helping handout: scratch even the most left-leaning German and it often seemed a stern Milton Friedman-like monetarist lurked beneath. No more.

But even if the coronavirus is altering the DNA of EU politics, life is not all about what goes on in the videoconferences of power.

At street level, the continent is home to hundreds of millions of individual stories, and as we step out there are moments of hope and moments of fear – and a lot of uncertainty.

In shops and schools tentative first steps have been taken, but the threat of reimposition of restrictions hangs heavy in the air.

The UK seems to be playing the joker in the pack, with at least two lockdown advocates – epidemiologist Neil Ferguson and government adviser Dominic Cummings – seemingly feeling restrictions didn’t apply to them.

Battered and bruised it may be, the NHS survived, and so Britons are now being asked to return to work – from home if possible. Reopening of schools will be phased, but travel discouraged. Indeed, travel abroad will require a strict quarantine on return.

Others are already enjoying some kind of freedom.

Germany, which dealt with the virus better than most in terms of sheer numbers, showed signs of life in early May: in a likely blow to the sudden rise in popularity of Belarusian soccer, the Bundesliga is back. Households can mix and the elderly can be visited.

Along with neighbouring Austria, it allowed cafés and restaurants to open – as long as social distancing is observed.

Merkel has said an “emergency brake” remains in place, though.

The Czech Republic started to ease restrictions as early as April, and by May 25 life had returned. Visitors from within the EU are welcome for short trips, though Czech residents returning from abroad must be tested.

France’s lockdown, or “confinement”, was never as strict as reported. At least not in Paris, where I live: not once in eight weeks was I confronted and asked for paperwork, and I only caught sight of police once.

Outside the capital the picture varied. Rural France was subject to strict regulation, with regular spot checks, and the turbulent suburbs were heavily policed.

In Villeneuve-la-Garenne, one of the banlieues that ring the capital, low-grade rioting occurred as youths clashed with police following a motorcyclist coming off his bike. Protestors alleged police knocked him to the ground.

Whatever the truth, it underscored already obvious class divides, with wealthy Parisians bolting to spacious country piles or staying in grand apartments, while other city dwellers and suburbanites were walled-up in tiny homes.

Education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer declared the fallout a “social emergency”. Some 40,000 primary schools have reopened, not only to get parents back to work, but acknowledging that many families have neither the technology, nor the connectivity nor time, to play teacher.

Today, France has opened up. Sort of. Social life remains restricted, with museums, cinemas, cafés, restaurants and many parks closed.

Following edicts from Macron and prime minister Édouard Philippe, shops and workplaces have opened. Masks, now widely available, are mandatory on public transport, though the metro, buses and trams remain under-used, with anyone who can now telecommuting. Besides, the strike in December and January may have made a good practice run for Parisians now wanting to walk to burn off the Covid-19 pounds of lockdown weight.

Many bars are selling ‘takeaway’ beer and wine in their doorways, slyly taken away a few steps by customers to drink in the street.

The country is divided into green and red zones, with Paris and the northeast of the country in the red. Those in the green zone can expect restaurants to open in early June while those in the red zone turn green with envy. No one is allowed to travel farther than 100 kms from home without an official reason, however.

Often restive France can expect more strife – even from usually inert sectors of society, such as the very researchers who have been cast as among the heroes saving the country from the virus and are now likely to return to industrial action against plans to reform research funding.

Meanwhile, Macron recently lost his parliamentary majority when 17 of his MPs hived-off to form a new centre left party.

Across the continent, Sweden – which bucked the coronavirus trend, opting not to impose a mandatory national lockdown – remains a source of fascination. Sweden. Finbar Krook Rosato, an artist and curator in Stockholm, said that while it appears the Swedish experiment has been a success it has many feeling a certain unease.

“I don’t get the sense that we in Sweden are as afraid of the individual health problems this virus can cause as perhaps we should be. Maintaining social distance, while so many aspects of daily life just continue as before, fools you into thinking that the pandemic isn’t that bad really,” he said.

However, suggestions that life simply carried on as normal in Sweden are false, he said. Although many measures were voluntary, the country’s highly consensual and cohesive, sometimes conformist, society was prepared to impose restrictions on itself.

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“Working from home is boring, but if it’s the worst we have to put up with compared with the UK’s restrictions then we’ve got off lightly,” he said.

Reading news reports from abroad of Sweden’s experience resulted in a world-turned-upside-down whiplash: on a normal day, the country is a model for the likes of erstwhile US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Today, its praises are sung from the other end of the political spectrum.

“Seeing Sweden revert to a kind of old fashioned default social democracy consensus is interesting, as international praise for Sweden’s approach is only coming from the right,” he said.

On the western fringe of northern Europe there is one country with few signs of green shoots: Ireland.

Justin Smyth, a librarian from Dublin, says the government’s five-stage plan for gradually reopening is too restrictive: “I think an excess of caution is now a problem.”

The tourism sector, a major component of the economy, is facing tough times: anyone arriving from anywhere except the UK is subject to a 14-day quarantine – and nothing is open anyway.

“It’s treated as being set in stone and
is beginning to look rigid in comparison to other European countries,” said Smyth.

Schools are set to return in September and restaurants will not open until June. Pubs have not heard when they can return, though many are technically restaurants and will open on that basis.

In southern Europe, there are hopes it may be possible to salvage something of the 2020 tourist season. Only fellow Europeans will be able to visit, though, with the borders to the rest of the world likely to remain shut.

Greece, its economy in tatters since the 2008 crisis, was among those across the continent least touched by the coronavirus and, accordingly, restrictions are now loose.

People are allowed to travel freely; shops, bars, restaurants and tourist sites such as the Acropolis are open. Social distancing regulations and passenger limits have been imposed on ferries and at restaurants, however.

Naturally, Italy, the first-hit country in Europe, remains the centre of attention. As with France (and Spain), there are regional variations – only more so, with the government leaving decisions to regional authorities.

Laura Ceccato, who lives just outside Venice, says a crackdown is coming – perhaps unsurprisingly in a country that saw newspapers stuffed with death notices.

“Last Monday young people were free to go to bars for a drink,” she said.

“A barman in Padova said that at 8pm somebody had already posted on social media a picture of young people without masks denouncing their lack of social distancing.”

Prime minister Giuseppe Conte and interior minister Luciana Lamorgese, declared more police will be deployed to check bars.

Italy’s government has largely been supported by the public, but lacking real democratic legitimacy – Conte was appointed PM, not elected – it remains to be seen if the Covid spirit can hold, especially in the poorer, but less hard-hit, south, desperate for an infusion of tourist cash.

Ceccato is pleased to see the country lift the deeply trying ultra-strict lockdown. “In Campania [in the south] the governor De Luca is imposing a curfew of 11pm. In Veneto, [in the north] [regional president] Zaia said he will not ask bars to close as people should self-regulate. So far it seems that we are freer to move to go to the hairdressers, people are moving around much more it looks like, apart from wearing a mask, that things are going back to normal.”

Equally hard-hit Spain is seeing political manoeuvring. Ana Alonso, a journalist and editor at El Independiente in Madrid, says the government managed the crisis clumsily.

“First of all, the situation is exceptional and the government has it in mind that the opposition is not cooperating, unlike in Portugal, [but] it reacted late; it allowed demonstrations on March 8 when there were already serious signs of the seriousness of the situation and, above all, shown it is [itself] divided.”

Alonso says communication has been poor, despite frequent press conferences. Deeper issues remain, too: economy minister Nadia Calviño is under pressure, with repeal of previous labour reforms expected to be pushed through with the support of Basque nationalists. Polls say Spaniards are asking politicians to come to an agreement, with each other as well as with unions and employers. “But their demands fall on deaf ears,” said Alonso.

Still, normal life is resuming on a regional basis, plus La Liga football will return on June 8. Tourists will be welcomed from the end of that month.

PM Pedro Sánchez has plans beyond attracting sun-seekers from Europe’s grey north, however. In a development that may foreshadow moves elsewhere, he last week announced a basic income scheme of 462 euros a month.

In comparison to Spain, neighbouring Portugal got off lightly. The so-called ‘Portuguese miracle’ saw a relatively low death toll of just over 1,300. Some have urged caution as the country moves to the next phase, however.

Writing in newspaper Publico journalist Natália Faria warned social distancing was easy because the elderly are left alone and the county’s interior has been depopulated for decades.

There is also the noted stoicism of the Portuguese national character, often romantically cast as the mournful saudade temperament, but which might be seen, in a certain light, as fatalism.

Nevertheless, supervised beaches are now open and restaurants reopened on May 18, along with museums and some schools. Large department stores and shopping centres will open on June 1. Ana Cardoso, a final year law student at the University of Porto, says the re-opening is going well.

“The structures seem to be in place, the expectations of people seem to be managed and the measures have been tempered from impossible to manageable,” she said.

Cardoso, who will likely miss her graduation ceremony, says she is pleased society will start to function again, but accepts that the so-called “new normal” won’t be normal at all.

“I think a slow re-opening is important because we can’t forget that the economy, however less important than community health, is still pretty important.”

Despite the different national approaches to both the virus and life after it, Cardoso expresses something that will be felt by almost every European today.

“Of course, we are not going back to normal, we know,” she said.

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