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3 Biggest Threats to European Businesses in 2021

What are the three biggest threats facing businesses as we head into the new year? And what can be done to minimise the risks that these key challenges pose to their people, assets and operations?

2020 had a significantly detrimental impact on businesses across Europe and as we began to analyse our data from the previous year, the detailed information we’d collected and reported within our threat intelligence platform provided some clear indications of how threat patterns will evolve over the next 12 months.

To help you better prepare for the year ahead, we’ve provided a concise and insightful assessment of the top three threats and challenges to businesses in 2021; COVID-19 regulations and policies, organised crime and activism/extremism.

A map highlighting the security incidents reported by Intelligence Fusion across Europe in 2020.
Security and intelligence related incidents reported by Intelligence Fusion between the 1st January 2020 and 8th January 2021. [Source: Intelligence Fusion]

 

COVID-19 Regulations and Policies

The first threat to businesses in Europe in 2021 is the continuation of the global pandemic. The outbreak of COVID-19 was reported to have originated from Wuhan, China and since March 2020, has forced businesses to closed and locked down consumers, regulations imposed by the vast majority of European governments in order to combat the spread of the virus. Many of these lockdowns and restrictions have been implemented based on COVID-19 cases, often at short notice and has created confusion for business owners trying to adapt. Adding to this, there has been further confusion surrounding the data which indicates a significant difference between recoveries and deaths. The ratio of global recoveries to deaths from COVID-19 cases stands at 49,252,137 recoveries to 1,905,911 deaths; or 26:01 as a ratio (Center for Systems Science and Engineering 2021). This has led to many business owners in some affected countries questioning the legitimacy of their government’s actions or the proportionality of the response.

All numbers and data are accurate as of the 8th January 2021.

Incidents relating to COVID-19 and the wider impacts of the pandemic across Europe in 2020
Incidents directly related to and as a consequence of COVID-19 across Europe in 2020. [Source: Intelligence Fusion]

Businesses, small to medium sized organisations in particular, have been caught in a lose-lose situation. Complying with government policies have threatened profitability through having to close or impose limits on how they provide goods and services. This has led to closures, job losses, layoffs and hostile customers who are becoming increasingly intolerant of regulations. On the other hand, defying regulations and operating in a manner that is best economically for these businesses to operate has police shut their premises down, impose fines and hostility from people who take offence to non-compliance with COVID-19 regulations.

Looking ahead, this lose-lose situation shows little to no sign of changing. Some business owners across the continent may need to choose whether to accept COVID-19 regulations and see their profits gradually decrease, eventually disappear and likely be forced to close; or defy the regulations, operate in a manner best suitable for their profitability and risk being punished for doing so.

Even organisations who don’t plan to defy regulations are still at risk of being physically impacted should they neighbour those that do. An estimated 50,000 restaurants have defied the current lockdown regulations across Italy as part of the I Am Open (#IoApro) campaign that’s quickly gaining traction on social media. In addition, reports claim that when police officers arrive to enforce COVID-19 measures, businesses are being defended by customers and in some cases, customers have become verbally hostile to law enforcement. Whilst no violence has yet to be reported, there is the potential for confrontation between citizens and police officers to escalate. In the case of a riot, surrounding businesses face the possibility of property damage.

Being able to monitor the rise in violence or significant unrest as more and more businesses become non-compliant, provides you with a real-time insight into the changing sentiment and help you better prepare for the potential impact on you and your assets. Intelligence Fusion are currently monitoring the increasing intolerance from citizens across Europe with regards to the pandemic response.

Organised Crime

Organised crime is able to function regardless of the operating environment and always poses a threat to businesses. However, small anomalies have been noticed in recent reporting with regards to drug seizures – marijuana plantations especially – in closed venues such as shops and entertainment venues. Additionally, there have been incidents of frauds, scams and one recent incident of usury – possibly a ‘loan shark’ operation – in Italy. When considering the current regulatory environment being imposed by governments, businesses could face the following threats from organised crime networks in the year ahead:

  • Lucrative offers to engage in slavery/labour exploitation due to the reductions in employment costs illegal labour provides;
  • Lucrative offers to sell counterfeit goods due to cheaper costs (PPE, consumer goods, clothing, etc);
  • Lucrative offers to use their premises as fronts for drug production and distribution;
  • Increased exposure to scams;
  • Offers of loans to cope with financial difficulties.
Incidents connected to organised crime groups across Europe in 2020

Incidents connected to organised crime groups across Europe in 2020. [Source: Intelligence Fusion]

 

While such scenarios may provide temporary relief to current pressures from COVID-19 regulations, the long term effects will likely place vulnerable businesses not only at the mercy of organised crime networks but also increase the possibility of being prosecuted by authorities.

 

Activism and Extremism

At the start of 2020, much of the activist threats tracked by Intelligence Fusion largely consisted of Anti-Capitalists and Climate Change/Animal Rights Activists vandalising property, carrying out protests which hindered business operations or other types of actions whose impacts are limited to reputations of businesses. Extremist threats were predominantly limited to – but significant nonetheless – Islamic Extremist attacks along with riots and protests from left wing extremist groups. Right wing groups have certainly been active, but law enforcement have been very effective in preventing their operations from materialising.

However, with the regulations and policies imposed as a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a trend developing with activism and extremism. Towards the end of 2020, business owners and citizens wanting freedoms restored have occasionally seen their public protests descend into riots. Open source reports used to log these incidents have mentioned the presence of both left- and right-wing extremists being present in these incidents. Left-wing extremists have been reported targeting the protesters themselves, regarding them as conspiracy theorists or – in Germany especially – as right-wing extremists; some left-wing extremist groups have been engaging in counterprotests and spreading hostile rhetoric about COVID protesters online. Right-wing extremists have so far been attending but appear to be attempting to curry favour with those carrying out the protests for the purpose of recruitment.

Additionally, a number of reports have featured media covering anti-lockdown protests, defiance of restrictions and police operations shutting businesses down. Many of which have expressed a hostile attitude towards those criticising or defying lockdowns; through publishing remarks from public servants, branding business owners as deniers/conspiracy theorists or implying that non-compliance with COVID-19 regulations is inexcusable, on occasion adding details such as names – both the business’ and the owner’s – alongside the business address. Consequently, this kind of hostile reporting from some media outlets would appear to be a kind of activism which poses a threat to a business’ people, assets and reputation or indeed a threat to the media outlet that may be targeted by the affected individual or business.

Incidents relating to activism and/or extremism in Europe since the beginning of 2020.
Incidents relating to activism and/or extremism in Europe throughout 2020. The heatmaps highlight the concentration of incidents relating to COVID-19 (red), Climate Change Activism (dark green), Left-Wing Extremism (light green) and Right-Wing Extremism (blue). [Source: Intelligence Fusion]

 

For 2021, businesses will face a bigger threat to their people, assets and reputation from activists/extremists. Some left-wing extremist elements will be keen to target businesses who protest against COVID-19 regulations or openly defy them. Right-wing extremists are likely to be focussed on building their numbers at this time through attending any anti-lockdown protests, exploiting discontent with government policy and currying favour with those who attend them.

Conclusion

Last year saw the creation of an even more difficult operating environment for businesses across Europe. At the beginning of the year, businesses already faced threats such as activism and organised crime however with the addition of the COVID-19 pandemic, the regulations and policies put in place to contain the spread of the virus have unfortunately worsened impact of the threat towards some industries, especially those of a smaller size.

Complying with COVID-19 regulations will likely mean gradual losses which will eventually result in many businesses facing closure, increasing the possibility of becoming involved with organised crime networks who will be keen to take advantage of businesses who are becoming desperate. Defying COVID-19 regulations will incur punishments from the authorities regardless of circumstances and being targeted by activists – including the media – who will be keen to tarnish their reputation by branding them as a mere denier, conspiracy theorist or acting in an inexcusable manner. Some media reporting could even go further and circulate reports threatening a business’ people and assets as well.

Other potential areas of risk include a heightened risk or burglary of theft from unoccupied business space with staff either working from home or closed down due to COVID-19 restrictions. Overall, business owners will be faced with a situation where they will need to heavily minimise the risk of the current operating environment.

Intelligence Fusion’s analysis is based on the data we collect, process and disseminate on a day to day basis. Our 24/7 Operations Centre monitor trends and patterns in order to provide additional context, help clients understand the impact of incidents and assist them in adequately responding to emerging threats.

If you’d like to take a closer look at the data behind our assessment or to find out how a tailored intelligence feed can help you better interpret information to prioritise your resource and plan more effectively, speak to a member of our team today.


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