As the Covid crisis subsides, countries in Europe are opening up again, one by one. It is now clear the omicron variant is much less health-threatening than the delta variant, but also both vaccines and natural immunity have played a role in getting Europe through.
During the last few months, the responses by European countries have been rather different. While the UK didn’t do all that much really, Sweden lightly reverted on its «no lockdown» policy, while a number of countries, from Belgium to Greece, introduced extra lockdown measures, with the Netherlands going the furthest.
One important measure which most EU member states had in place was the vaccination passport, used to prevent people that are not vaccinated – sometimes even when they had been tested negative – to obtain access to bars, restaurants, sports and culture facilities – and sometimes even public transport.
It cannot be sufficiently repeated how such vaccine passports were not backed up by science, for the simple reason that those that are vaccinated are still able to pass on the virus, as the value of the vaccines was mainly to suppress the symptoms of illness.
It is still hard to believe how European politicians could get away with introducing severe restrictions for the non-vaccinated part of the population without sufficient evidence that this actually boosted protection. To be fair, vaccinated people are less contagious than the non-vaccinated, but by no means to a degree that can ever justify the intrusive vaccine passport system.
How the EU facilitated vaccine passports
Perhaps in Spring 2021, one could perhaps still make a case for vaccine passports, not only because of the severity of the dominant Covid variant back then, but most importantly because the vaccines were actually able to make sure that those that are vaccinated would no longer infect those around them with the first variant of Covid. That was no longer the case with the Delta variant, even if, as mentioned, vaccines still helped to suppress symptoms, a great thing nevertheless, but not something that can justify a vaccine passport system.
Still, as I warned in July, the whole vaccine passport scheme was expanded from travel to hospitality, first only for big events, but eventually those visiting bars, restaurants, sports facilities or cultural events were told to show a QR code. An EU scheme developed only for travel and in a context where Covid vaccines actually helped to stop infection was expanded to all kinds of domestic applications in a context where these vaccines mainly helped to suppress symptoms.
In Italy, those aged 50 or over that are not vaccinated are even no longer be able to access workplaces, as a result of the country’s vaccination pass system.
Those aged 50 or over in Italy who are not vaccinated against Covid-19 will no longer be able to access workplaces from Tuesday under an extension of the country’s ‘super green pass’ scheme. https://t.co/WwrlgVOQJ2
— The Local Italy (@TheLocalItaly) February 14, 2022
Lots of protests were held in opposition to vaccine passports – sometimes but not always joined by those opposing all vaccines or at least Covid vaccines – but nowhere in Europe was there any majority support in politics to abolish such privacy and liberty eroding schemes.
Back to normal
Now that the facts on the ground are changing, policy makers are abolishing the vaccine passports – as plans for mandatory vaccination of health care workers are also suspended in places like Belgium, or even abolished, like in the UK. Also Austria’s extreme measure to introduce compulsory vaccination has just been suspended indefinitely.
A low point throughout all of this probably was French President Emmanuel Macron openly saying that the point of the vaccine passport was to make life difficult for unvaccinated people, as he stated in January: “I really want to piss them off, and we’ll carry on doing this – to the end.”
In France, which has one of the highest rates of vaccine skepticism of the Western world, the Covid passport does seem to have had an effect on higher vaccination rates, but in most other countries that was not the case. On the contrary, Covid passports may have made people more careless, as they bought into the logic promoted by politicians to justify vaccine passports that vaccines would also stop infection.
These two men in #Italy are still trying to sell the lie that #Greenpass gives you the security of being amongst non-contagious people.
Even worse, @WRicciardi is #HealthMinister advisor & @fabfazio continuously uses public TV to spread FAKE NEWS.
Dangerous pathological liars. pic.twitter.com/jfD2SH6NmU
— Heather Parisi 🤐 (@heather_parisi) February 14, 2022
For some policy makers, it seems hard to give up all that power. Bavaria for example, will loosen up Covid measures, but is still keeping its so-called “2G”-rule in place for certain venues, which means that negatively tested non-vaccinated people are banned from entering while the vaccinated can freely enter, even if the latter are more potentially infectious. A researcher of Dutch TU Delft university sums it up: “Introduction of the 2G or 3G system hardly inhibits the number of corona infections at this time”.
Even if vaccine passes are being scrapped, in most countries, the legal framework for them remains in place. One reason cited for this is that it allows people to use their QR code when traveling to other EU member states that have not yet abolished the scheme. In effect, the EU just proposed to extend the EU Digital COVID Certificate by a year, until 30 June 2023.
Another reason is of course to be able to reactivate vaccine passports at some point. In this way, the EU has not only facilitated the emergence of vaccine passports, but it is now also facilitating the continuation of it.
The “European Digital Identity” framework
The danger of a legal framework enabling a government to prevent certain citizens entering certain places should not be underestimated. In history, governments have often tried to obtain such powers. In 2006, for example, the Dutch Parliament was very critical towards a Dutch government proposal to grant it the possibility to restrict the freedom of movement of people associated with terrorism – for example restrictions to enter a certain area. The proposal did not make it in the end.
It’s quite telling how easy it has become only 15 years later to introduce much more intrusive measures for everyone, not just potential terrorists, and without much of a scientific basis.
This is a concerning precedent. It is even more troubling given other EU initiatives that are in the pipeline and that could really facilitate ever greater state control of citizens.
One such initiative is the so-called “European Digital Identity” framework, which the European Commission proposed in July 2021 and which it wants to start testing in October 2022.
A Commission official confides to Politico that the Commission’s digital vaccine passports are likely to have paved the way for this EU proposal, as digital projects got priority in responding to the health crisis, stating: “This is the impressive side of this pandemic. (…) It’s a path of no return.”
At the moment, 14 EU member states already have eID schemes. The Commission wants to require all the other member states to also offer a digital ID system to their residents, while making it mandatory for both public and private services to accept the new EU scheme.
Potential applications mentioned by the Commission are “submitting tax declarations, enrolling in a foreign university, remotely opening a bank account or asking for a loan, renting a car, setting up a business in another Member State, authenticating for internet payments, bidding to an online call for tender, and more.”
Will this become mandatory for citizens?
The Commission is of course right to state that “the demand for means to identify and authenticate online, as well as to digitally exchange information related to our identity, attributes or qualifications (identity, addresses, age, but also professional qualifications, driving licences and other permits and payment systems), securely and with a high level of data protection, has increased radically”.
However, at the same time, people can have very good and sincere reasons to opt for anonymity online, not least when they fear their data may not be secure, given how common data leaks are.
Because of that, it is of the utmost importance that nobody is forced to have to use the European Digital Identity. Digital rights group EDRi however fears that those that don’t want it may be left at a disadvantage if companies or governments would start providing incentives for people to use it. Just like the non-vaccinated are no longer able to go to a restaurant without burdensome testing requirements, even if they are only partially less contagious than those that are vaccinated, E-ID refusers may see their online banking ability stopped, simply because they do not trust using a gigantic European-wide ID system, even if they’re happy to scan their national ID card to submit as proof of identity to their bank.
An EU attempt to be able to monitor people’s internet usage
In a comment earlier this month, EDRi rails against the EU plan for a European Digital Identiy, under the headline “Orwell’s Wallet: European electronic identity system leads us straight into surveillance capitalism”, making the case that current EU plans do currently not prevent the risk of “centralised observation of user behavior”, as the European Commission also wants to require browsers to trust third parties designated by the government, without necessary security assurances.
On the website of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, IT expert Alexis Hancock explains why this is so dangerous:
“This setup could also tempt governments to try “Machine-in-the-Middle”(MITM) attacks on people. In August 2019, the government of Kazakhstan tried to require installation of a certificate to scan citizen traffic for “security threats.” Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Apple Safari blocked this certificate. They were able to take this stand because they run independent root stores with proper security controls. Under this new regulation, this would not be as easy to do. The EU has much more reach and impact than one country. Even though eIDAS wasn’t intended to be anti-democratic, it could open the path to more authoritarian surveillance.”
In a January 2022 paper, EDRi further explains that even if “there are existing self-sovereign eID systems that operate on a zero-knowledge and unlinkability paradigm, which prevents by design any centralised observation of the identification or authorization processes”, the current EU proposal “allows a centralised actor to observe on a macroscopic level every identification and attribute verification in the population.”
As the pandemic is ending, legal arrangements are in place that are vulnerable for abuse, while dangerous precedents have been created in terms of government surveillance. The European Union has been a driver throughout this whole process, and its proposed “European Digital Identity” framework lacks crucial safeguards against abusive government surveillance.
It was always only going to be a matter of time before the internet and the digital sphere would be targeted by governments eager to increasing their monitoring capability, but the pandemic has clearly accelerated this process. At the moment, this is a mere Commission proposal, but unless more awareness emerges about it, it is likely to smoothly make its way through the regulatory machine.
More than ever, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.