“Madame, you will not be able to board the flight, your COVID test is in German,” the Swiss airline employee told my daughter at the gate in Zurich airport, as she prepared to fly home to London.
“Excuse me? It says “Negativ,” just add the “e” and you’ll turn it into English.”
“No, Madame, we’re sorry. Please step aside, we will proceed to unload your luggage.”
In pre-COVID times Europe had no internal borders, at least for a short period of history. Those lucky enough to have a European passport or a valid permit moved freely through the Schengen space, enjoying the cultural diversity that the old continent offers. It was a hard-won triumph; Europe hasn’t always welcomed its own neighbours.
The pandemic reinstituted national borders within Europe. Again we live in nation states. For good or bad. The founders of the European Union foresaw the possibility of reinstalling national boundaries, in case of need. It’s in the treaties. And, yes, the pandemic justifies returning border control to the nation states.
But this re-nationalisation of Europe in times of pandemic has brought about a resurgence of rules, regulations, and laws, and a multitude of regulators: national, federal, corporate, cantonal, each with different grades of legitimacy and accountability. Many citizens too have become self-appointed regulators imparting rules in their homes, their streets, their gated communities, their schools, businesses, everywhere.
We should be forgiving with our governments and regulators. Nobody alive on earth had ever experienced a global pandemic. We are all improvising. How do you legislate and draft rules in an emergency, while people outside your parliament or boardroom are dying and you have no previous experience in managing a pandemic? Our new rules are patchy, strange, even if mostly well-intended. Regulations that are drafted in times of pandemics are not sufficiently consulted, not democratic, at times ineffective and even unenforceable.
I wonder which authority determined that the missing “e” in my daughter’s COVID test was enough reason to stop her from flying home. Is it a consequence of Brexit? I research and find that Luxembourg too has its particular choice of languages in which certificates are accepted. The EU has twenty-four official languages. Long negotiations secured every official EU spoken language is included in EU parliamentary discussions, at the commission level, and that all laws are translated. What happened to that acquis communautaire, the very body of European Union law?
On the European Parliament website, I read the EU language policy is based on respect for linguistic diversity in all Member States and on the creation of an intercultural dialogue throughout the EU.
My daughter’s case illustrates how, in the name of the pandemic, we sacrifice common sense and are ready to dismantle the social construct that we’ve been painstakingly building. Granted, these are unprecedented times. And we must accept restrictions on personal liberties. But do we have to let go of common sense?
It appears to me that the EU’s motto ‘United in diversity’, has turned into “Separated in adversity”.