EN | 03/02/2021 | by ERIK


You may not be aware of this, but throughout 2020, Europeans have being going to the streets of Berlin, Naples, Paris, Sofia, The Hague and many more European cities … to protest the various COVID-rules that have been put into place by our governments in an effort to stem the advance of the virus. Many of our fellow Europeans, however, think that these are going too far in limiting our daily lives, individual freedoms and civil rights.

Many of these protests (such as “Berlin invites Europe”) were completely peaceful. Some of these protests (such as the protests in Italy or in Copenhagen) were not.

Many times, we have seen images of police charging protesters with horses, water cannons and dogs. Nevertheless, the protests continue. Because many Europeans feel that our national governments have overstepped their limits and have sidelined our ancient European traditions of democracy and the right to public protest, choosing instead for not always equally logical sounding rules (such as the infamous “you can only shop for 30 minutes”) and sometimes heavy-handed police response. You can agree or disagree with them, but the truth is that many Europeans do feel this way.

The fact that many of these COVID-rules have been generated by extra-parliamentary advisors, imposed through ministerial edicts, supported by rushed-through emergency laws and enforced by quasi-secret police units (such as the infamous “Romeos” of the Dutch police) certainly shows that these protesters have some legitimate points to make about the current state of Europe’s public democracy. The fact that protests (either big ones like the one in Amsterdam last month, or small ones like the ones that occasionally happen in Brussels) are routinely forbidden to take place, certainly does not do any credit to Europe’s regular boast of being “the most democratic place on Earth”.

The reality that these protests against government imposed COVID-rules, such as the curfews, are usually forbidden or severely limited by governments on the basis of those same COVID-rules can be said to be paradoxical at best …

As you probably know, these protests often turn ugly. And 2021 has indeed started off horrible, with Dutch cities exploding in riots against the new national curfew. Interestingly, these rioters are a "democratic" mix of people, with the police reporting that the youngest person they arrested was still in his/her teens, while the oldest was well in his fifties. Indeed, we see that many of the people who resist these laws the hardest are themselves not exactly young anymore …

So far, we have not seen a lot of public protest against the government’s COVID-rules in Belgium. There have been some, but not much compared to what has happened with our neighbors. So far, Belgium has avoided the mass protests of the Netherlands, Germany, France and the UK. Perhaps because we’ve been too busy fighting our own traditional political wars … Still, even in Belgium it’s been impossible not to notice the strong undercurrent of public resentment against the government, which is fueled by hypocritical politicians like Alexander de Croo who don’t seem to care to follow their own rules (remember Open VLD's New Year's party?), while expecting everybody else to do so...

As a result of this unhappiness, an “anti-COVID protest” took place in Brussels on the 31st of January. Even though the government of Brussels already declared this protest too to be illegal, about 500 protesters showed up at de Kunstberg/Mont des Arts, most of whom were arrested by the police, who were present en-masse. As one protester put it: “It seems there are more police than protesters here”.

This raises the question though: Are we still free to protest in Europe?

Even in crisis times, democracy cannot be just aborted. Why are protesters not allowed to fight for what they believe in, while a politician as Alexander de Croo (who was at a big New Year’s Eve party while everybody else was making the best of it at home) is allowed to keep his job as prime minister? How can we allow people to use their constitutional right to protest in freedom and without fear of police repression, while also being mindful of public health? These are the questions we are faced with today.