On the streets of Rome, frustrations with pandemic curbs boiled over this week as desperate protesters, many of them restaurant owners and small-business owners, complained that restrictions and repeated lockdowns aimed at suppressing the transmission of the coronavirus are ruining them.
“We can no longer go on like this,” 51-year-old pizzeria owner Ermes Ferrari told reporters. “I just want to work.”
Outside the parliament in the Italian capital, protesters Tuesday called for an immediate end to Italy’s grinding lockdown. At one point they clashed with riot police. The protesters chanted repeatedly, “Libertà, Libertà.”
Many of the protesters, who emphasized they are not COVID-19 deniers, are members of the burgeoning “I’m Opening” movement of bar and restaurant owners, who defy curbs, break rules and incur hefty fines for doing so.
“I had to spend €10,000 to adapt the pizzeria so that it was in accord with virus safety precautions, then the government made us close down. It’s shameful. I have no more money left. My employees don’t have money to eat,” Ferrari told the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
Italians aren’t the only Europeans expressing frustration with financially ruinous and freedom-restricting curbs — nor are they alone in demanding to be unshackled, despite rising infections.
In recent weeks, protests have snowballed with pandemic demonstrations mounted in Austria, Britain, Finland, Romania, Switzerland, Poland, France, Bulgaria, Serbia, the Netherlands and Romania.
German police last month resorted to using water cannons, pepper spray and batons on protesters railing against the coronavirus lockdown in the town of Kassel in central Germany, where demonstrators numbered around 20,000.
In many countries, anti-lockdown anger has merged with other grievances — in Britain with rage over the abduction and death of a 33-year-old woman allegedly at the hands of a serving police officer, who has been charged with her murder. In several countries, demonstrators inveighed against governments suspending the right to protest because of the public health crisis.
A bungled vaccine rollout across most of Europe has added to the groundswell of impatience and exasperation. Economic hardship and anxiety are fueling anger. In Italy, families say they worry about whether they will have jobs soon. Some economists are predicting more than a million Italian workers could find themselves jobless when the government finally ends subsidized furloughs.
Far-right and far-left groups have been quick to seize on public frustration, say politicians and analysts. A protest in Bucharest last month, where a mask-less crowd honked horns and waved national flags and demanded “Freedom,” was backed by Romania’s far-right AUR party.
But while majorities in European countries have supported tough pandemic restrictions, according to opinion polls, sizable minorities across the political spectrum are expressing rising alarm about the prolonging of severe measures. And protests, like the demonstration this week in Rome, have drawn support from ordinary people unaffiliated with fringe political groups, note analysts.
Some protesters in recent weeks have said they aren’t only worried about the “now,” but also about reclaiming basic freedoms once the immediate public health crisis subsides. They fear governments may be less willing to relinquish powers they have accrued to themselves during the pandemic.
It is a worry libertarians and rights activists are increasingly highlighting, citing how post-9/11 anti-terrorism laws and more intrusive state surveillance has become a permanent feature in many states long after the terror threat diminished.
They fear the balance of power between the state and individuals has been upended and bewail governments navigating the pandemic with what they argue has been heavy-handed state coercion. They underscore the pandemic may have taught governments that in order to feel safe, the majority of people in European countries are willing to put up with greater sacrifices of liberty than previously thought.
“Those of us who value liberty more highly and who have a higher appetite for public risk need to appreciate the precedent that has been set,” says Daniel Finkelstein, a former Downing Street adviser and now a columnist for The Times of London.
“Ensuring that the powers the government has granted itself are abolished rather than kept for a future occasion is going to be hard political work. As is ensuring that we set the bar very high for renewing such powers in the future,” he wrote recently.
In Britain, which is much further along than other European countries with mass vaccinations, and next week starts easing a lockdown, the debate over civil liberties is becoming especially heated and is focusing on the possibility of vaccine passports being introduced for both domestic activities and foreign travel.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing a rebellion within his party over the issue of vaccine passports with more than 60 members of the ruling Conservative party saying they are opposed and have warned that they will rebel and vote against a soon-to-be-introduced measure extending until September emergency COVID-19 legislation.
Senior Conservative lawmaker Steven Baker said he plans to vote against an extension of emergency powers and emphasizes the vote “will present a rare opportunity for members of parliament to say no to a new way of life in a checkpoint society, under extreme police powers, that we would not have recognized at the beginning of last year.”