What We're Watching: How the pandemic affects Europe, emerging markets, and populist leaders

How does Europe fit in? Even before the pandemic struck, Europe was struggling to redefine its role in a world where the US is a more fickle ally and China is a more assertive challenger. In particular, Brussels has been trying to style itself as a global leader in the responsible regulation of tech companies. In some ways, the pandemic has boosted those ambitions: as governments use contact tracing apps and facial recognition to help stop the spread, Brussels regulators are paying close attention. They're also cracking down on misinformation about the coronavirus. But first the EU has a bigger challenge to address. Faced with the worst economic crisis in its history, it has to prove to a rising chorus of (euro)skeptics that it is capable of cushioning the blow, and equitably rebooting economic growth across the Union. The European Commission, fearing an economic and even political fragmentation of the bloc, has unveiled an unprecedented 750 billion euro coronavirus rescue plan -- but not all member states are in favor.


Emerging markets on the ropes: While the world's largest economies duke it out for power in the post-pandemic world, many of the world's developing economies will still be digging out of the most severe shock they have experienced in generations. Faced with a quadruple hit of local economic shutdowns, collapsing demand for their exports, evaporating remittance flows, and vanishing tourism, many cash-strapped and highly-indebted developing economies are on the ropes. Poverty rates are set to rise significantly – the UN warns that as many as 500 million people could plunge below the poverty line as a result of the pandemic. In Latin America alone, a quarter of the 100 million people who came out of poverty over the past twenty years could fall right back. What's more, as the pandemic accelerates international firms' embrace of automation – robots don't get sick and can work wherever you ask them to – emerging markets that depend on manufactured exports could see millions of jobs vanish permanently. In all, the first two decades of the 21st century saw a rapid rise in the economic clout and living standards of lower-income countries. The next decade will be spent largely picking up the post-pandemic pieces.

How populism fares in all of this: One of the major trends in global politics in recent years has been the rise of populist nationalists who swept to power on promises to break the old political establishment, reverse the tide of globalization, and do more to put their countries "first." So how are they doing amid the pandemic? In some cases their innate distrust of traditional experts and weakening of state institutions has contributed to the spread of the disease: there's a reason that the US and Brazil have the two highest case counts and are among the leaders in deaths per 100,000 people. But the spread of a deadly disease across borders is also perfect fodder for leaders – like, say, Hungary's Viktor Orban, or the Law and Justice party in Poland – who argue that less economic and cultural integration is safer for everyone. How Poland's current leaders fare in an upcoming election may be a bellwether. More broadly, populism grows easily in situations of economic crisis and income inequality. The pandemic has served up both in spades. We are watching to see where populists are able to capitalize.

In Italy, stacks of plastic boxes in supermarkets and stores are not garbage - they are collected and reused, thanks to a consortium that specializes in recycling them for food storage. How do these "circular" plastic boxes help reduce energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions?

Learn more in this episode of Eni's Energy SUPERFACTS series.

Over the past few years, we've seen three major emerging powers take bold action to right what they say are historical wrongs.

First came Crimea. When the Kremlin decided in 2014 that Western powers were working against Russian interests in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to seize the Crimean Peninsula, which was then part of Ukraine. Moscow claimed that Crimea and its ethnic Russian majority had been part of the Russian Empire for centuries until a shameful deal in 1954 made Crimea part of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Americans and Europeans imposed sanctions on Russia. But Ukraine is not part of NATO or the EU, and no further action was taken.

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"Neither America first, which is ultimately America alone, nor America the world's policeman," Sen. Chris Coons told Ian Bremmer in describing VP Joe Biden's approach to foreign policy should he win the presidential election in November. In the latest episode of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer, Sen. Coons provides details of how U.S. relationships with foreign governments and multilateral alliances could change in a Biden presidency. He also defended President Obama's track record, saying "I think it is a mischaracterization of the Obama-Biden foreign policy for President Trump to say that we were picking up the tab and fighting the world's wars and that we were disrespected." Coons stated that Biden would work to restore U.S. involvement in alliances like NATO, and shore up global support to pressure China on labor and environmental standards. The exchange is part of a broad conversation with the Senator about COVID response and economic relief, Russian interference in elections, and the 2020 presidential race. The episode begins airing nationally in the U.S. on Friday, July 10. Check local listings.

Jon Lieber, managing director for the United States at Eurasia Group, shares his insights on US politics:

How is coronavirus jeopardizing the legitimacy of a 2020 presidential election?

Well, what coronavirus is doing is a lot of states are worrying about people who aren't going to want to come to the polling places in the fall, and they're worried about a shortage of polling workers who are going to want to come out and volunteer to get sick by interacting with a bunch people in person. So, what they're doing is they're looking at making a shift to vote-by-mail. Most states allow some form of absentee balloting today. Five states just automatically mail you a ballot and they don't do any in-person voting. But the challenge here is that a lot of states are unprepared for the sharp increase that's expected. In the last election, 25% of ballots were cast by mail. You may see 50, 60 or even more percent of ballots cast by mail this time, which could overwhelm election administration, which happens at the state level.

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The United States and the European Union have comparable population sizes, but their COVID-19 death toll trajectories have diverged. As of July 8, the average number of new deaths every three days in the EU had fallen 97 percent since peaking at the beginning of April. The US number, however, has fallen only 67 percent over the same period. That means that although both regions' death tolls peaked with only two weeks difference, the EU has flattened its COVID-19 fatality curve faster than America. Some experts attribute the difference to EU countries' more robust public health systems and better compliance with mask-wearing and other social distancing measures.