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Pandemia, the threats to pluralism and freedom in democratic societies – Interview with Giovanni Capoccia

Pandemia, the threats to pluralism and freedom in democratic societies – Interview with Giovanni Capoccia

27/03/2020

Giovanni Capoccia

Western democracies are proving they have the tools with which to confront the spread of the coronavirus epidemic. Nevertheless, it is true that in various countries whose leaders have already shown a certain intolerance toward pluralism, the emergency could turn out to offer an opportunity to erode citizen freedoms. Nor is it any rosier in the United Kingdom, where safeguarding the public health seems to have been subordinated to domestic economic and political issues like the hard Brexit. The point of view of Giovanni Capoccia, professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Oxford.

Is an authoritarian system such as China’s more effective than Western democratic ones in confronting the Covid-19 epidemic? 

In principle, there aren’t really any major differences between authoritarian and democratic systems when it comes to a national government’s ability to confront extremely serious situations such as the Covid-19 pandemic. All democracies are permitted be their Constitutions to declare what is usually defined as a “state of emergency”. In such situations, leaders can take extraordinary measures that violate fundamental and economic freedoms in a way not unlike the rulers of an authoritarian regime can do.

How do you explain the British government’s vague response to the epidemic? 

It is difficult to know exactly what factors influenced the British government’s strategy. My impression is that the British government’s priority was to safeguard the economy as much as possible with a view to be able to effect a hard Brexit at year’s end. The initial espousal of the notion of “herd immunity”, along with recommendations that only the most vulnerable self-isolate, seems traceable to that line of thinking. As we know, that approach was then rapidly withdrawn in response to international and national expert criticism, particularly from a team at the London Imperial College, after which the government gradually enacted the types of measures being taken by continental Europe, albeit more slowly and reluctantly. Social prevention measures were adopted on 23 March, again later than other countries, but which, in any case, have not halted industry and services and additional restrictive measures will probably be needed.

Despite the rhetoric of excellence that is diffuse in the British press England’s national health system is much less equipped than that of northern Italy, and according to the Financial Times, our country has double the number of ICU beds available compared with the United Kingdom. The problems are going to multiply and will be accompanied by an increasingly bitter and nationalistic rhetoric claiming that due to the economic woes resulting from the pandemic the British government will probably be forced to extend the post-Brexit transition period – a decision that Boris Johnson has thus far vigorously ruled out and that is unacceptable to the majority of the conservative electorate.

Will the pandemic loosen protections on privacy and individual freedoms? 

In a crisis of such gravity many fundamental freedoms are bound to be limited, and many democratic nations are going to be suspending or limiting constitutional freedoms for a brief period and only when necessary, with clear expiration dates on related legislation. I think this this is going to happen in the majority of European countries. There are those whose recently elected leaders have displayed their intention to increase executive powers and, at the same time, have shown intolerance toward institutions that ensure plurality and certain freedoms such as an independent judiciary and freedom of the press. It is possible that the crisis will offer an opportunity to chip away at such guarantees in countries such as Hungary, Poland, India, Turkey and – unfortunately – the United States.  

How are counter measures such as the heavy restriction on circulation going to impact on the European project? 

The coronavirus crisis is striking Europe at a moment of growing popular opposition, with the rise of anti-EU parties in many member countries and with Brexit. Europe does not have particularly strong institutional instruments for confronting an international health crisis head on. The community’s new political elite are at the proverbial fork in the road: to avoid a further crisis that could jeopardize the integration process, the new EU leaders must show that the Union can make the difference for European citizens in facing the seriousness of the situation. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s proactive stance has been positive, in contrast with the negative fallout from ECB president Christine Lagarde’s initial delay and subsequent missteps in addressing the situation, that resulted in her own considerable about-face.

What effect will this crisis have on the globalization process and on the stability of Western democracies? 

It is still early to say how the crisis will affect the global economy, but it is certain that the economic crash is going to be worse than the financial one of 2007-08, and it is going to take targeted economic intervention and international cooperation instruments to mitigate the political consequences that could be in store for all Western democracies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giovanni Capoccia has been Professor of Comparative Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations since 2006 at Oxford University, where he is a Fellow of the Corpus Christi College.  His research focuses on institution theory, mainly as applied to an empirical analysis of democratization processes and the comparative study of democratic regimes.