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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Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week with a look at the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus, Delta variant woes, and Lebanon one year after the Beirut blast.

An Olympian refuses to return home to Belarus and an anti-Lukashenko activist has been found dead in Ukraine. What's going on?

Yeah. That anti-Lukashenko activist was found hanged in a park in Kiev. Once again, not exactly likely a suicide. These anti-Lukashenko activists have a way of turning up injured or dead. It's a horrible regime. Their friends are limited largely to the Russians. That's about it. The economic pressure is growing from Europe, from the United States, very coordinated. But the problem is a very hard to do much to Lukashenko when he has not only support of his military, but also the support of most of the workers in the country who aren't prepared to strike because they want to ensure they still have jobs. I expect this is going to continue, but human rights abuses are stacking up. It is nice to see that the Americans and the Europeans are coordinating policy as well as they have been.

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It's been 365 days since twin blasts at a Beirut port decimated Lebanon's capital. More than 200 people were killed and some 7,000 were injured, yet accountability has been scarce. There is ample evidence that multiple Lebanese officials knew that ammonium nitrate was being improperly stored at the port. Four high-ranking politicians, including former PM Hassan Diab, have been charged by a Lebanese judge, but they all refuse to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

Since then, Lebanon's already-dire economic and financial crises have only intensified. The Lebanese pound, the national currency, has plummeted, losing 90 percent of its value since 2019, when the country's economic crisis erupted. And more than 50 percent of the population is now living below the poverty line.

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The Biden administration is finally devoting more attention to Southeast Asia. Last week US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines, marking the first regional visit by a Biden cabinet official. A trip by Vice President Kamala Harris is already in the works as well, and this week Secretary of State Tony Blinken will meet (virtually) with ASEAN counterparts.

The flurry of activity comes after earlier concerns that President Joe Biden was neglecting Southeast Asia, the region where US-China rivalry is the most intense. To understand better what Austin's visit meant, and what comes next, Eurasia Group's lead Southeast Asia analyst Peter Mumford spoke to us from Singapore.

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Raisi won't have it easy: The newly "elected" president of Iran, Ibrahim Raisi, was officially endorsed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Tuesday. In his inaugural address, the 60-year-old hardliner pledged to get US sanctions removed and to respond to rising socioeconomic grievances within Iran, but he warned that he wouldn't lash Iran's prosperity or survival to "the will of foreigners." In Iran, the president's role focuses mainly on domestic policy, but with the economy reeling one of Raisi's big early challenges will be to continue complicated talks with the Biden administration to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal, which would lead to the US lifting some of the harshest sanctions. Both sides say they want a new deal, and have gone through half a dozen rounds of negotiations already, but they remain at odds over who should make what concessions first. Raisi also pledged to restore Iranians' flagging trust in their government and to improve the economic situation, but in ways that are in line with "revolutionary principles." He'll have his hands full with that. And don't forget that the likely imminent (re)takeover of neighboring Afghanistan by the Taliban — whom Tehran don't like at all — will also occur on Raisi's watch. Good luck, Mr. President, you'll need it.

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158: To boost vaccination rates, New York City will soon require proof of COVID vaccination or a negative test to enter gyms and restaurants, as daily new infections in the Big Apple have jumped 158 percent over the past two weeks due to the more contagious delta variant. New York is the first major US city to take this step, following similar schemes already in place in France and Italy.

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