Europe is in the midst not only of a public health crisis, but also of a dangerous shift towards authoritarianism. The Austrian government’s introduction of a lockdown only for unvaccinated people this week was a precedent-setting assault on human rights: liberty, privacy, freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom from discrimination. And yet, if you follow the work of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency, which sits in the heart of Vienna, you wouldn’t know that it is even happening.
To this backdrop of institutional silence, other European countries are following in the footsteps of Austria, which now looks set to reintroduce lockdown for everyone. Slovakia and the Czech Republic have also imposed restrictions only on the unjabbed, while Germany did the same last night. Across Europe, two new classes of people – the vaccinated and the unvaccinated – were already being afforded differential liberties, thanks to passport schemes. Now, rather than persuade people of the benefits of vaccination, governments are opting to take away even more of their rights.
Clearly, some part of the European dream has died. The heart of the European project was meant to be the human rights framework we share – a universal safety net “guarded by freedom and sustained by law” as Winston Churchill proclaimed, as he boldly led the first Congress of Europe in The Hague.
But today, as parts of Europe slip into a period of illiberalism, it seems as though that safety net has failed. It has morphed into a safetyist catch net that is constricting rights beyond recognition, supposedly for “the greater good”. Over recent years, populations in Europe have been increasingly surveilled and censored. Now they are being discriminated against based on their medical status.
The EU purports to be a guardian of individual rights and equality before the law. But European institutions have barely uttered a word of criticism about vaccine segregation, or indeed the enduring impact on social division, discrimination, and civil liberties that centralised medical identity systems, like vaccine passports, will have for years to come.
Rather, the EU has proven a managerial power centre that administers vaccine IDs more efficiently than the vaccines themselves. The truth is that many in the EU establishment wanted vaccine IDs long before the pandemic. And to date, more than 590 million EU Digital Covid Certificates have been issued, meaning that the majority of European citizens now negotiate their freedoms and opportunities through a medical ID.
The result is that millions of healthy people, who happen to be disproportionately working class or from minority ethnic groups – many of whom will have immunity to Covid anyway from having contracted the virus – are being turned into a new European sub-class, denied leisure, free movement, and social and economic opportunities.
As Europeans are thrust into this new two-tier society, the human rights balance is supposedly this: that unvaccinated people pose a health risk to others, and so it is proportionate to take away their liberties to protect public health. Yet this assertion lacks a logical or scientific evidence base.
Data from around the world – including Israel and the UK, where the overwhelming majority of the adult population is at least double-vaccinated – shows that the vaccines do not provide perfect protection against infection, even if they do significantly reduce the risk of death and hospitalisation.
Most disturbingly, there does not appear to be even an air of regret among those cheerleading vaccine segregation. It is as though they are relishing the opportunity to police the unvaccinated, to treat the dissenters as diseased, and to make this unwanted component of society invisible.
Now, the draconian vaccine pass policies of Europe are on our own doorstop. Already, unvaccinated people in the UK are losing their jobs and, as of last week, English law requires unjabbed care workers to be sacked. Wales and Scotland have mandated Covid passes, and Northern Ireland is set to require Covid passes even for pubs and restaurants in coming weeks.
The UK has a de facto travel ban for many unvaccinated people, owing to the 10-day quarantine rule on return and extortionate PCR test requirements – demands that some would-be holiday-makers will struggle to meet. Could there be lockdowns for the unvaccinated in Britain? Dominic Raab refused to rule out Austria-style rules yesterday.
This is a perilous moment for liberalism in Europe. Britons must maintain the courage to go our own way and defend liberty with all our might. Sadly, the institutions we expected to protect our rights are failing. Instead, we will have to fight for them.
Silkie Carlo is the director of Big Brother Watch