The Brief, powered by bp – Not that ‘smart’ after all

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [Sarantis Michalopoulos]

All it took was a few hours of warm weather and the Brussels parks were suddenly flooded with hundreds of young people on Tuesday as if there had never been any confinement.

Similar pictures could be seen across Europe – a clear sign that people are reaching their confinement tolerance limits in this seemingly never-ending pandemic.

Successive ‘smart’ lockdowns in Europe have not managed to contain the resurgence of infections. In several countries, numbers show no decrease in COVID-19 cases, but rather an increase, despite a return to more stringent measures.

Since last March, Greece has had in place one of the strictest lockdowns in the entire EU, with citizens obliged to send an SMS, even if they are only going out to the local supermarket.

On Tuesday, Greece reported a record-high 4,340 new COVID-19 cases and 72 deaths, bringing the death toll to a total of 8,017. The government, however, seems to have realised that lockdowns bring zero added value.

Thus, from slogans such as ‘stay safe at home’, governments such as Greece and Bulgaria are now switching to ‘stay safe and go outside’ for the simple reason that outdoor gatherings are deemed much safer than crowded indoor meetings.

Since the start of the pandemic, many EU countries have often reacted in panic, confusing citizens with measures that were ambiguous and questionable and were later rolled back. And after a series of such measures, it is small wonder that the citizens’ sense of compliance and patience has worn thin.

Another example was the use of masks: Initially, when masks were in short supply, EU governments vacillated and were not convinced about their value. A couple of weeks later, they made them mandatory.

For instance, Belgium switched back and forth between abolishing the mandatory use of masks everywhere, instead focusing on social distancing, and the re-introduction of obligatory masks with steep fines for non-compliance.

Many now wonder about the added value of a curfew at 10 pm, or in some places as early as 6 pm. Or why alcohol consumption is not allowed outdoors.

Both cases encourage people to secretly gather indoors, instead of in a more socially-distanced outdoor setting in the fresh air.

In addition, the hospitality sector has been shut for months now, despite the investments into health safety measures made by many SMEs and the proven low infection rates when they temporarily re-opened.

And if that wasn’t enough, COVID-19 measures in Belgium might now be the subject of a legal fist-fight.

The Belgian state has been ordered to lift “all coronavirus measures” within 30 days, as the legal basis for them is insufficient, a Brussels court ruled on Wednesday.

This would include the restrictive measures enacted by the Belgian ministerial decree of 28 October 2020 and its subsequent decrees, impacting the closure of the hospitality sector, suspension of compulsory education and the limitation of public or private gatherings.

The judges earmarked 30 days to provide a sound legal basis, or face a penalty of €5,000 for each day beyond that period, with a maximum limit of €200,000, Le Soir reported.

The current coronavirus measures are based on the Civil Safety Act of 2007, adopted after the Ghislengien gas explosion in order to provide swift reactions to crisis situations.

But the judges dismissed the legal basis, saying it could not be used to impose COVID-19 measures that are so restrictive of individual freedoms, especially for a long duration.

The state is likely to appeal, which could result in further legal wrangling and, again, more confusion for citizens.

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The Roundup

The European Commission said it is taking Poland to the European Court of Justice over a reform it says undermines the country’s judicial independence. Poland brushed it off, saying it had “no legal or factual justification”.

A group of climate campaigners led by Greta Thunberg have met with European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, urging him to withdraw current proposals to reform the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy.

Romanian farmers are naturally wary of cooperatives, which are often strongly associated with the country’s communist past and command economy. But thanks to young farmers and EU funding, more and more farmers are choosing to join forces.

Stakeholders have urged the EU to continue with efforts on achieving gender equality in the workplace and pay special attention to women, who have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic and have seen the existing gender inequalities exacerbated by the ongoing crisis.

A mini urban forest of 100 square metres is big enough to plant 15 to 30 tree types and recreate the ecosystem of a full-scale forest, according to Nicolas de Brabandère, founder of the Belgian company, Urban Forest.

Visegrad countries have not been very supportive so far of the idea to give EU institutions a bigger say in health matters, an idea that has been recently re-launched by the European Commission.

The European Union’s institutional data protection watchdog has voiced ‘critical concerns’ about the European Parliament’s plans to install a biometric register that will allow EU lawmakers to collect their daily allowance and sign in for hearings on the Brussels premises.

Look out for…

  • European Commission goes on holiday from tomorrow
  • European Parliament’s external parliamentary activities

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Benjamin Fox]

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