The politics of reopening in Europe

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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Ukraine is once again in a tough spot.

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Listen: Soumya Swaminathan calls for a massive increase in the global vaccine supply in order to prevent the rise of more dangerous and vaccine-evading super-variants, in a wide-ranging interview with Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast. Dr. Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization, argues that vaccine nationalism, where countries prioritize their own citizens ahead of the rest of the world, will only prolong the pandemic because a virus does not stop at any national border. She also weighs in on a controversial new WHO report investigating the origins of COVID-19 and discusses when she thinks the world's children should get vaccinated. In addition, she suggests we may see alternative vaccine forms, like nasal sprays, sooner than we think.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

India, the world's third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, is one of the countries worst affected by climate change. But it takes issue with those now asking it to clean up its act. Why, the Indians ask, should we give up our right to get rich by burning fossil fuels like you developed economies have done for generations?

That's precisely the message that India's energy minister had for the US and other wealthy nations at a recent Zoom summit after they pressured Delhi to set a future deadline for net zero emissions. For India, he explained, such targets are "pie in the sky" aspirations that do little to address the climate crisis the country faces right now.

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The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are nearly a year away, but discussion of a potential boycott is already stoking tensions on both sides of the US-China relationship. Officials in Washington and other Western capitals are coming under mounting pressure from activists to respond to human rights abuses in China. An increasingly assertive Beijing, meanwhile, vigorously rejects any foreign criticism of what it regards as internal issues.

The last time the US boycotted an Olympics was in 1980, when it withdrew from the Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviet Union repaid in kind by skipping the Games in Los Angeles. Would the US and its allies do something like that again? And how might China respond? Eurasia Group analysts Neil Thomas and Allison Sherlock explain the drivers of the boycott movement and its possible fallout.

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In two weeks, US President Joe Biden will be hosting an online "climate summit" to mark Earth Day. He'll ask China and India to sign up to America's ambitious new plan to slow down climate change. Will they go for it? China is the world's largest polluter, but Beijing is rolling out solar and wind power as fast as it's burning coal. India, meanwhile, is loathe to pick up the slack for rich countries that polluted their way to wealth and now want everyone else to agree to emissions cuts. No matter what happens, any successful plan to reduce global emissions will require buy-in from these three nations which, along with the European Union, account for almost 60 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions nowadays. Here's a look at emissions by the world's top polluters compared to everyone else over the last two decades.

Two big Andean elections: This Sunday, Ecuadorians go to the polls for the second time this year in a close presidential runoff, while Peruvians will vote in the first round of their own presidential election. In Ecuador, the matchup is between the leftwing-populist frontrunner Andrés Arauz, who has pledged to blow up the country's IMF agreements and boost national oil production, and Guillermo Lasso, a pro-business candidate who is seen as the choice of continuity with the current market-friendly government. Voter abstention is likely to be high, and the final result could very well be close and contested in a polarized country that was struggling with massive social unrest even before the pandemic struck. Meanwhile in Peru — which recently went through three presidents in the space of a week — the candidate field is hugely fragmented. Those with a decent shot to make it to the second round include "change" candidates like the leftist former lawmakers Yohny Lescano and Verónica Mendoza, as well as the prominent neoliberal economist Hernando De Soto, who has recently risen in the polls. Former soccer star George Forsyth is also in the mix, as is Keiko Fujimori, daughter of authoritarian former president Alberto Fujimori. Both of this Sunday's elections will serve as a kind of bellwether for the political mood in a region that has been devastated by the public health and economic impact of the pandemic.

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Nasal sprays, oral vaccines, and other new types of COVID-19 vaccines may be ready soon, according to Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization. She previews some of these needle-less vaccines and notes that the possibility of being able to store vaccines at room temperature could be a game-changer for vaccinating poorer nations. The advantage of nasal sprays, she explains, is that they "would generate local mucosal immunity in addition to systemic immunity." Dr. Swaminathan's conversation with Ian Bremmer is featured on the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting this Friday, April 9. Check local listings.

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