The politics of reopening in Europe

Just weeks ago, Europe was the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now some of its hardest hit countries are cautiously reopening their economies after nearly two months of lockdown. Beginning this week, Italy is allowing some factories and construction sites to start up again, while Spain is allowing hairdressers and other small businesses to reopen, and Germany is starting to send kids back to school. France is also planning to ease its own lockdown this week.

Political leaders in these countries have faced the acute first phase of the outbreak. But now they'll grapple with the economic and social shocks it has left behind, while trying to avoid a large-scale second wave of infection. Here's a look at the political context each government faces.


Italy: Salvini waits in the wings
Authorities in Europe's hardest-hit country won praise for their handling of the first phase of the crisis. But since then, bottlenecks in economic assistance for companies and workers, and sloppy messaging about the reopening plan, have dented their support. That's great news for populist opposition leader Matteo Salvini, whose popular Lega party has been out of government since his botched bid to force early elections last year. An economic crisis, a fresh rise in migrant arrivals from Libya, and uneven support from Brussels will all provide fertile ground for his anti-immigrant and euroskeptic messages. Fresh elections aren't likely until next year, but count on Salvini to make the most of that time.

Spain: Squabbles over spending
Tensions between Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez's center-left Socialist Party and his far-left coalition partners in Podemos may well deepen as debates rage over how to maximize support for a devastated economy without racking up debts that make it harder for Madrid to raise money abroad. Another headache: Catalan separatist leaders have seized on the pandemic to reignite the argument that their wealthy, industrialized region would be better off independent. Their cause won't advance in the middle of a pandemic, but it will add to Sánchez's political troubles as he carefully manages a phased reopening.

France: Can Macron Reinvent Himself?
President Macron's early, decisive lockdowns gave his dwindling approval ratings a 14-point boost to 44 percent. But they're back in the 30s again amid shortages of PPE and testing, as well as poor messaging about public health guidelines. Macron doesn't face re-election until 2022, but to position himself well for that vote he'll have to persuade voters that the ambitious young reformer of 2017 has become a mature leader and effective crisis manager. In addition, he has staked his political reputation on strong support for a reinvigorated EU. If Brussels drops the ball on the pandemic aftermath, Macron will pay for it at home.

Germany: Will Merkel go out on top?
Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has handled the COVID crisis better than any other large country in Europe, with swift action and widespread testing. Her approval rating is in the 80s, an astounding number for a democratically elected leader who has led her country through three crises in 12 years. But Merkel, who favors an ultra-cautious reopening, faces tremendous pressure from business groups and local governments who want her to move faster. Merkel still plans to step down next year. How well she manages the recovery and reopening will determine Germany's near-term path as well as her own long-term legacy.

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The region's troubles have also captured the attention of European leaders, who worry that if instability there continues, it could generate a movement of migrants that might well dwarf the EU refugee crisis of 2015-2016.

But is Europe helping to make things better?

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Ian Bremmer's QuickTake:

It's Monday, coronavirus still going on. Plenty to talk about.

I mean, I guess the biggest news in the United States is the fact that we still don't have any stimulus going forward. I mean, now, keep in mind, this is on the back of an exceptionally strong initial US economic response, over 10% of GDP, ensuring relief for small businesses, for big corporations, and most importantly, for everyday American citizens, many of whom, large double digit numbers, lost their jobs, a lot of whom lost them permanently but didn't have to worry, at least in the near term, because they were getting cash from the government. Is that going to continue?

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Lebanon's government resigns: Lebanon's government resigned on Monday over last week's twin explosions at Beirut's port, which killed at least 160 people and shattered much of the city's downtown areas. After promising a thorough investigation into why dangerous explosives were stored at the port so close to civilian areas, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said he would step down in solidarity with the people." The people in question are furious. Thousands of Lebanese have taken to the streets in recent days demanding "revolution" and the resignation of a political class whose corruption and mismanagement had plunged the country into economic ruin even before last week's blasts. The international community, meanwhile, held a conference on Sunday and pledged $300 million in humanitarian aid to rebuild battered Beirut, with aid distribution to be coordinated by the UN. But the attendees, which included US President Donald Trump, the European Union, and the Gulf Arab states, said that the funds would not be released until the Lebanese government reforms its bloated, inefficient, and corrupt public sector. So far, Beirut's power brokers have resisted change. As rage on the streets intensifies — with angry protesters swarming the city center and setting public property and government buildings ablaze even after cabinet members resigned — it remains unclear who will run Lebanon going forward and guide the country's rebuilding process.

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"There have been more than 500 deaths of healthcare workers that we know of in this country and more than 80,000 infections of healthcare workers … These are mind-boggling numbers." Former CDC director Dr. Frieden on how the United States is failing the heroes who are fighting COVID-19 on the frontlines. The fact that many still don't have access to basic personal protective equipment this far into the public health crisis is not just unacceptable. It's a symptom of how deeply flawed our healthcare system is as a whole.