Terror in Europe

Our Age Of Collective Panic, So Hard To Keep Calm And Carry On

Terrorism and social networks contribute to the exacerbation of a general feeling of fear, as recent incidents in New York and the South of France have shown.

At JFK International Airport on Aug. 15
Etienne Dubuis

GENEVA — An unidentified popping sound is all it took to start panic on both sides of the Atlantic, twice within a matter of hours. The first one, in the small town of Juan-les-Pins on the French Riviera, on the evening of Aug. 14 caused a stampede that left more than 40 people injured. The second one was set off at JFK airport in New York a few hours later, where the mysterious pop-pop-pop in the distance led to flights being rerouted, delayed and cancelled. Minor causes, major effects.

It was hard to identify exactly what triggered each panic, with the U.S. press reporting that the New York incident may have been sparked by a few track-and-field fans getting rowdy during the Olympics 100 meter final; while in France, it looks like it was some holiday firecrackers.

Collective panic is as powerful as it is irrational. French military psychiatrist Louis Crocq wrote a book about the source and significance of these emotions. They start with "the perception of a real or imaginary threat" which turns into "a regression of conscience" and leads to "maladaptive behaviors such as shock, frantic flight, violence or even suicide."

Panic embodies the height of empathy as it is based on an instinctive imitation of the other, and yet is also highly asocial as it only targets personal salvation to the point that one may even kill to survive.

A panic always has a "trigger factor" that may be a sound, a movement, an incident, Crocq explains. But it does not happen without a "predisposing factor" or particular circumstances. The first one being a general climate of anxiety, which for example was economic during the 1929 Wall Street crash, or was security related when the German army advanced towards Paris in 1940. Two different feelings of fear, which sparked a suicide epidemic in the former and mass human exodus in the latter.

A French soldier patrols the Promenade des Anglais, in Nice — Photo: Andreas Gebert/ZUMA

Huge crowds are the second condition. They are essential for the contagion to happen between a significant number of fragile people. The third condition is the inexistence of a reassuring presence able to inform and give people instructions. And then come aggravating factors, such as social networks spreading scare stories in more recent years.

Pompeii to present

The phenomenon is as old as mankind itself. Crocq mentions about 50 historic manifestations in his book, from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius near Pompeii in AD 79, to moviemaker Orson Welles" famous radio broadcast in which he announced that America was under attack by Martians, causing a nationwide panic.

Today appears ripe for a new wave of such public panic. Frédéric Espesito, the Director of Geneva's Global Studies Institute, says the current skittishness is fed by two factors. The first one is the growth of terrorism, where the central aim is specifically to cause these kinds of collective panics. The second one is the increase in the number of 24-hour rolling news channels and the emergence of social networks.

Fire drills as a model

"We used to rely on people's common sense to avoid repetitive panics," Esposito says. "But the political and social environment has become so nerve-racking that it would be a wise move to take particular measures to combat this phenomenon and to provide people with instructions. Presentations of safety measures already exist in aircrafts, so why not during large manifestations? Classes about the dangers arising from social networks — especially when they are used as a way to scaremonger — could also be introduced in schools."

Crocq says there are specific steps to take to reduce risks of hysteria. People need to be educated to understand the moral duty (mutual assistance), and also apply the correct responses to such a situation (the respect for the existing rules and hierarchy). They also need to be trained so that anxiety proves useful by being transferred from the mind to the arms and legs. "Fire drills in schools could be used as a model for a larger framework to counter the risk of losing lucidity in highly critical moments," he said. "The public wants concrete action."

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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