Protests are erupting in cities across Europe in response to government efforts to impose so-called Covid passports, documents that show proof of immunization against Covid-19. In France, President Emmanuel Macron announced what arguably are the most severe measures in Europe to coerce people to get vaccinated. As of August 9, a "health pass" (passe sanitaire) is required to gain access to many places associated with daily life. Pictured: A gendarme checks the "health pass" of a customer in a bar in Bauvin, northern France, on August 10, 2021. (Photo by François Lo Presti/AFP via Getty Images)
Protests are erupting in cities across Europe in response to government efforts to impose so-called Covid passports, documents that show proof of immunization against Covid-19. The passports, which effectively reward the vaccinated and punish the unvaccinated, have sparked a heated debate over the constitutionality of government attempts to force people to get vaccinated.
In the last two weeks alone, hundreds of thousands of people of all political persuasions have gathered in at least 300 European cities to protest government overreach and to defend civil liberties. So far, the protests have not had the intended effect of reversing government policies, but they have highlighted that Europeans are thoroughly divided on the issue of Covid vaccines.
Some governments have tried to discredit the protesters by describing them as "anti-vaxxers," "negationists," "Covid deniers" — and much worse. Judging from the large number of banners with the words "Liberty" and "Freedom" that have been present at the events, it seems safe to conclude that many if not most of the marchers simply want freedom of choice. Many appear concerned that governments will use the current Covid-19 restrictions as a precedent to restrict other freedoms in the future.
Critics of the Covid passports say that they are being used by governments to compel vaccination at a time when immunization efforts in many European countries have stalled, presumably due to public apprehension about the unknown risks of Covid vaccines.
European publics appear to be roughly evenly divided about Covid vaccines: As of August 11, 62% of the adult EU population — with huge variances from country to country — was fully vaccinated, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the unvaccinated are waiting for more information about the long-term efficacy of the vaccines.
The ECDC data show a marked deceleration in vaccination rates in almost all EU countries in July. This coincides with increasing reports of so-called breakthrough infections — fully vaccinated people who get sick with Covid-19 — that have called into question the effectiveness of the vaccines. Even those who have received the first dose appear to be reluctant to take the second dose, according to the ECDC data.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron has announced what arguably are the most severe measures in Europe to coerce people to get vaccinated. As of August 9, a "health pass" (passe sanitaire) is required to gain access to many places associated with daily life: cafés and restaurants (including outdoor terraces), hotels, gyms, shopping centers, planes, trains and long-distance buses, hospitals (with the exception of emergency rooms) and nursing homes. Anyone who enters an establishment without showing a valid pass is subject to a fine of €135 ($160). Hours after the measure took effect, police were deployed to enforce compliance. In the Paris train station Gare de Lyon, people using public transport were required to wear blue bracelets.
Certain professions that require close contact with the public (healthcare workers, firefighters, domestic helpers) will be subject to compulsory vaccination as of September 15. Those who refuse to comply risk suspension without pay.
To obtain the health pass, people must prove that they are fully vaccinated with an EU-approved vaccine; present a negative PCR or antigen test taken within the last 48 hours; or have a Covid-19 recovery certificate that is less than six months old.
The health pass rules will be extended to minors age 12 and over beginning on September 30.
On August 5, the French Supreme Court (Conseil constitutionnel) ruled that all of the government's Covid passport measures were constitutional — except that employees with fixed-term contracts cannot be fired, although their salaries can be withheld.
French MP Nicolas Dupont-Aignan tweeted:
"The #conseilconstitutionnel dishonors itself by validating most of the #PassSanitaire! The wise thus trample on the Constitution, flout individual freedoms & our fundamental values. A few concessions at the margin do not change the indignity of this decision!"
MP Jean-Luc Mélenchon added:
"Very disappointing decision of the Constitutional Council. It does not protect any of the freedoms threatened by the Pass Sanitaire. Black humor: a fixed-term contract cannot be interrupted but the payment of salary remains suspended."
Macron's measures have sparked massive protests for four consecutive weekends. On August 7, hundreds of thousands of people waving placards reading, "No to dictatorship," "Liberty," and "Macron, we don't want your health pass," marched in nearly 200 French cities and towns, including: Aix-en-Provence, Albertville, Avignon, Bayonne, Bergerac, Bordeaux, Caen, Chambéry, Cherbourg, Foix, Guingamp, La Rochelle, Lille, Marseilles (here, here and here), Metz, Mont-de-Marsan, Montluçon, Montpellier (here, here and here), Mulhouse, Nancy, Nantes, Narbonne, Nice, Paris (here, here and here), Pau, Perpignan, Reims, Rennes, Rouen, Strasbourg, Toulon, Toulouse and Valence.
In some cities, including Grenoble and Cambrai, restaurant owners refused to open to protest the health passes. In Avignon, a bar owner created an "Anti-Health Pass" in support of restaurant owners in the city. In Besançon, residents gathered in front of the local hospital to protest the health pass. In Roanne, residents demonstrated in front of the local fire station to support unvaccinated firemen at risk of losing their jobs. In Marseilles, police officers wore stickers with the message: "My body, my free choice: I will not be vaccinated."
Observers estimated that up to 870,000 people joined the protests across France on August 7. The French Police Union said that approximately 500,000 demonstrators had gathered by 3pm. The French Interior Ministry claimed that the total number of protesters numbered just 240,000.
President Macron blasted the protesters as "irrational," "cynical," and "manipulative." He added:
"If tomorrow you infect your father, your mother or myself, I am a victim of your freedom when you had the possibility of having something to protect you and me. And in the name of your freedom, you may be having a serious form of the virus and you will arrive at this hospital. It is all these personnel who will have to take care of you and perhaps give up taking care of someone else. That's not freedom, it's called irresponsibility, selfishness."
Despite the tough talk, the mass turnout surely must be concerning for Macron, who, ahead of French presidential elections set for April 2022, is running neck and neck in the polls with rival Marine Le Pen. In an indication that the protests may be having an impact, the government announced on August 7 that negative PCR tests would be valid for 72 hours, rather than 48 hours as stated earlier.
Commentator Manfred Haferburg, writing for the blog Achgut, described the scene in France:
"Suddenly the situation in France has changed. Yesterday, it was still about the defense of forced vaccination for employees of the health and transport system and the fire brigade. Today it is about the exclusion of unvaccinated people from almost all public life.
"But wait — exclusion not from all of life. The QR code is not checked to work in the large factories and to pay taxes. The government has thought out the measures very well — anything that is kind of fun is made dependent on vaccination. Do you want to sip an aperitif in a café? Get vaccinated. Do you want to visit your mother by train? Get vaccinated. Do you want to go shopping? Get vaccinated.
"It is the complete compulsory vaccination through the back door. The unvaccinated person can still test himself for free. But from September you must pay for the tests yourself. Then a visit to a restaurant suddenly costs 50 euros more for the test that is due. And anyone in Germany who is now gleefully shaking his head about France should wait another four weeks and then see what is going on in Germany."
In Germany, where Coronavirus-related protests have been going on for months, Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed to make life difficult for the unvaccinated. After a "Corona Summit" on August 10 between the central government and the leaders of Germany's 16 federal states, Merkel threatened to confine the unvaccinated to their homes while the vaccinated could go about their daily lives. "The vaccinated will certainly be treated differently than the non-vaccinated if there is a further increase in the number of infections," she warned.
On August 9, the government admitted that it was aiming to further restrict the rights of unvaccinated people. In response to a parliamentary inquiry, the German Health Ministry stated:
"When the time for stricter measures for non-vaccinated people is reached, the federal and state governments will continue to act intensively for their own protection and the protection of the entire community."
Wolfgang Kubicki, Vice President of the Free Democrats (FDP), Germany's classical liberal party, responded with outrage over the government's ever-expanding role in the personal lives of citizens:
"The federal government is apparently saying goodbye to aligning its measures solely with the interests of the common good. Instead, citizens should now also be explicitly protected from themselves.
"Those who only see the responsible citizen as a risk factor who must be forced to act against his own will for his own good can no longer claim to act in the interests of the country and its citizens. The leaders [of Germany's 16 federal states] should take note of this statement and be aware that they can expect no constitutionally balanced coronavirus policy from the federal government."
Germany's largest circulation newspaper, Bild, published an angry rebuttal to Merkel's policies:
"Chancellor, we want unity (end the division and panic — equal rights for all people, vaccinated and unvaccinated; justice (end the violations to our freedoms — we want to be able to protest, we want that everyone can attend church or visit the football stadium); and freedom (anyone can choose to be vaccinated, we do not need your orders)."
Commentator Georg Gafron, writing for Tichys Einblick, accused Merkel of turning citizens into subjects:
"Everyone has their inalienable rights enshrined in the Basic Law. This also includes the right to the integrity of the person, this therefore obliges the particular self-determination of each individual. This has been invoked again and again in the history of the Federal Republic — by the way, this was also one of the things that made the Federal Republic so worth living in, the security and the protection of personal freedom and self-determination seemed to be guaranteed....
"But now it turns out that a large number of Germans and others living here actually want to forego the vaccination. The reasons for this are diverse. Due to the constant chaos in its Coronavirus policy, the federal government in particular cannot absolve itself of its share in creating uncertainty among the population and thus the loss of trust of the people.
"Now the situation is just the way it is. The vaccine is there, but a significant part of the population doesn't want it. Of course, doubts about its effectiveness and the fear of possible long-term consequences also contribute to this. This is where the fact that an open scientific discussion — I do not mean obscure conspiracy theories — has been and is being refused, takes its revenge....
"Anyone who wants to exercise their right to refuse vaccination will in the future have to dig deep into their pockets for various services such as going to a restaurant or a cinema because the PCR tests are compulsory for most people who have not been vaccinated and are subject to a charge.
"The constitutional judges may allow that, but the common man with a clear sense of the law will not accept it, because he has to pay for the exercise of a right in contrast to third parties. Where is the equality before the law?"
In Italy, thousands of people have protested the government's Covid passport, which took effect on August 6. The so-called Green Pass is now required to enter bars, cafes and restaurants (indoors only, not outdoors), gyms, theaters and a long list of other venues. The Green Pass, which applies to anyone 12 years of age or older, will be extended to universities and long-distance transport beginning on September 1.
Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said that police would be deployed to restaurants and bars to carry out random checks to enforce the measure. Those who break the rules face fines of up to €400 ($470); businesses face closure for five days. University employees who fail to follow the measures this fall face suspension without pay.
To obtain the Green Pass, people must prove that they have received at least the first dose of a Covid vaccine in the previous nine months; be cured of Covid-19 in the previous six months; or present a negative PCR or antigen test taken within the previous 48 hours.
In recent days, thousands of protesters shouting "No Green Pass" and "Freedom, Freedom" have marched in over 80 Italian cities, including Florence, Milan, Naples, Rome and Turin. In Genoa, a protester said:
"We are neither anti-vaccine nor pro-vaccine. We are for free choice. Those of us who do not want to get vaccinated do not do so out of ideology but because we realize that there are so many doubts and perplexities about this which is in fact an experimental mass vaccination."
In Poland, more than 100,000 people gathered in the city of Katowice on August 7 to oppose government restrictions. The organizers of the "March for Freedom" said that their aim was to "resist the tyranny that has been born over the past year and a half." Participants displayed slogans calling for the government to "stop sanitary segregation" and "coerced vaccination." Poland's establishment media refused to report on the march altogether.
Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński said that the state had an "obligation to do everything it can" to protect against Covid-19, and that people who have not been vaccinated should be subject to "restrictions." He accused such people of being "extremely selfish" and "lacking empathy." He added: "The limits of freedoms are [when they impact on] the rights of other people. One cannot expose others to the loss of life or health."
Public opinion on the issue appears divided, according to Notes from Poland. It cited a July 24 poll for Wirtualna Polska which found that although a narrow majority (54%) of Poles thought there should be some restrictions on the unvaccinated, they were split on specific measures:
"More than 40% said that those who have not been vaccinated should be barred from entering restaurants and cafes, while almost 55% disagreed.
"Moreover, 34% of respondents said that vaccinations should be required to use shopping malls, and 59% thought it should not. More than 30% supported limiting train travel for unvaccinated passengers, with more than twice as many (almost 62%) against the idea.
"A majority (57%) were also opposed to restrictions on access to amusement parks and cultural institutions, while 37% were in favor. More than three quarters of people (76%) were against banning unvaccinated people from using medical centres. Around 21% disagreed with them."
In Northern Ireland, where the Covid-19 vaccine passport program was suspended after a data breach resulted in users receiving other users' personal information, authorities rejected hundreds of fraudulent applications.
In Spain, thousands of people gathered in Madrid to protest Covid passports. Protests are also being planned in more than a dozen Spanish cities on August 14 to object to government efforts to vaccinate children.
Elsewhere in Europe, Covid-related protests have been held in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Moldova, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute.