Still weighed down by fear

Austria shows Europe is not yet free and reminds us we must remain vigilant too

“You are an Englishman, and have subsequently drawn the greatest prize in the lottery of life”, Rhodes is recorded as saying to Lord Grey in the ‘good old days’ when Britannia ruled the waves. 

WITH INFLATION going through the roof, Northern Ireland’s status increasingly in question and a leadership class progressively less able to articulate what a woman is, Cecil’s views might seem outlandish, outdated and outrageous. It so happens, however, that whatever the issues, and there are too many to mention, his views might still be true today, relatively speaking. 

England left COVID behind. 

As Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, said earlier in the year, the country will have to learn to live with Covid as it does the flu. With that, all restrictions, mandates and passports were lifted. 

The asphyxiating layer of official cellophane that spread over the whole country and hung over our combined heads for close to twenty-four months was finally withdrawn. And the Heralds sang.

The artificial, highly politicised and cynical societal divisions created over the course of 24 months between clever “Vaxxers” and conspiratorial “Anti-Vaxxers” disappeared more or less overnight. 

England moved on. 

Our rickety political machinery at home delivered two large blows against the Executive and its Covid policies in December 2021. 

The landslide by-election defeat in North Shropshire and the large Tory backbench rebellionled our politicians to change tack. 

From pushing for vaccine passport and mandates, they did a dexterous volte face and promptly dropped all attempts at control in a few short weeks. 

England became free again, while much of Europe stayed in bondage.

In the meantime, many European countries have made progress along the road back to sanity, aping, although they wouldn’t like to admit it, Boris and England in the process. 

Sadly, however, quite a few very visible aspects of state enforced repression are still noticeable – hanging over the European populace like a heavy and greyish cloud ready to burst. 

Over the past three months though, Italians over fifty, Greeks over sixty and all Austrians saw their respective governments dial the repression to eleven by enforcing vaccine mandates.  

On February 4th, the Austrian government passed a vaccine mandate law just as Omicron revealed itself as one of the world’s relatively benign viruses. 

All main parties joined together late last year to make sure the vaccine mandates would pass. 

The Socialists (SPO), Conservatives (OVP), Greens and Liberal Democrats (Neos) colluded in November 2021, and excluded any opposing views from participating in any meaningful discussions to approve the drafting of the law. 

In other words, they dipped their hands in the blood of Civil Right denial to pass this law. In doing so, they revealed to all that Human Rights were no match against political expediency. 

In Austria, the weeks between November 2021 and February 2022 were particularly unpleasant. The media, experts and the political class used extremely aggressive language. They threatened persecution, fines and imprisonment. 

Some grey beards, who know Austria well, thought it typical and bet on a rapid climb-down. The key reasons from their perspective were based on a simple point and sharp observations. 

The Austria Republic would not have the resources in both of manpower and available technology and would be facing increasing popular outrage. 

The wise men’s prognostications were tested and found to be very perceptive. 

Indeed, the results of a local by-election in Lower Austria only eight weeks ago showed an unimaginative political class that actions have consequences. 

The ruling party (OVP) lost over 30% of its support since the last election in 2017. A new party, the MFG (Menschen, Freiheit und Grundrechte), loosely translated as the party for “People, Freedom and Fundamental Rights” received 17% of the votes from a standing start. The national papers called this a “political bomb”. Unlike in England though, the Austrian political class pressed on regardless. 

Then Russia invaded Ukraine. 

Stuck deep in unpopularity and caught in a quagmire of their own making, the Austrian government, to paraphrase Jo Moore, thought the occasion a good time to bury bad policy.  

On March 9th, only a month after having passed one of the most repressive and authoritarian laws since 1945, the government quietly dropped, or more accurately, suspended the vaccine mandate law. They said that “the mandate was being suspended and there is currently no need to enforce it” and added that a “commission of (undisclosed) experts” will “re-evaluate the situation in mid-June”.

The law still hangs like a sword of Damocles over the heads of around a fifth of the Austrian population and more when the authorities finally define with precision what “fully vaccinated” means. 

The law was not revoked, merely suspended. The devil, as we have been shown repeatedly recently, really is in the detail. 

Austria led Europe down the road to extreme repression, realised that the world’s many populations were losing patience with their leaders, but pressed on regardless, hoping against hope for something that would allow them to emulate Boris and Co. 

Putin provided that wiggle room – along with most of Austria’s energy supplies – and to give them credit, Austrian politicians took their chance and ran with it. 

Before, however, those who love the idea of being free start celebrating too much about this turn-around, Austrians, Italians, and Germans are still required to wear masks, most have to show test results in most public spaces, although a positive test is less freedom-sapping than it once was, and have to travel with proof of either vaccination or immunisation. 

In other words, our Austrian and sundry European cousins are not free. And there are many in England and the rest of the UK too who are all too eager to take us back to the days of masks, restrictions and lockdowns. Yet again, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has shown her authoritarian hand by extending face masks for another two weeks in Scotland – the day after she was quite happy to sit in Westminster Cathedral without a mask for the Duke of Edinburgh’s memorial service.

It would be a damn shame if the people of beautiful and romantic Austria got used to the idea that their freedom comes from politicians currently in power rather than being something with which they were, as free beings, born. 

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Alex Story lives in Salzburg and is a senior manager at a City brokerage, where he works closely with hedge funds and other financial institutions. A rower, he represented Great Britain at the Olympic Games and won the Boat Race for Cambridge on two occasions. His team still holds the course record. @alexpstory

Photo of Austrian border road closed due to Covid restrictions by Uwe from Adobe Stock