The Covid-19 crisis' uneven impact on Europe's political landscape

Politicians in Europe were acutely aware for some time that the way they handle the coronavirus pandemic will not only determine the future of individual governments, but also the broader viability of Europe's political structures.

For the populist, anti-establishment movements that are already eating into the votes for established political parties could well get a massive boost if current governments are perceived to have done badly in the health crisis.

Opinion polls conducted throughout the continent suggest that, at least for the moment, voters are ready to give their serving politicians the benefit of the doubt.

Still, there are some notable exceptions, and some serious question marks about the future shape of Europe's power structures.

On the one hand, Europeans are listening and interacting with their leaders in ways seldom experienced before. French President Emmanuel Macron's latest speech to the nation in which he announced the extension of the lockdown to reduce infection rates was watched by no less than 36.7 million French men and women, more than half of the entire nation.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's audience figures are also huge. And in Britain, between nine and 10 million people tune in to the daily press briefing from 10 Downing Street.

Many of these briefings are formulaic and predictable; they include a senior politician and one or two medical experts, and usually go over exactly the same ground, such as grim figures of those infected or dead.

Nonetheless, Europeans seem to be reassured by such appearances.

And the European public do not seem to be particularly impressed by journalists. A poll conducted last week by Press Gazette, a British-based periodical aimed at the media industry, found out that only about a third of Britons believe that journalists have succeeded in holding governments to account.

One possible explanation for the lacklustre media impact is the fact that journalists who usually cover government briefings are not experts on health matters, while those who cover health issues are not good at covering politics.

Furthermore, since many questions about the clinical details of the pandemic are being fielded by experts, all that journalists can ask politicians is about their alleged failure to provide necessary medical resources, and this strikes a bad note with the public, who largely view such political point-scoring as just a diversion.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz during a session at Germany's Lower House of Parliament, the Bundestag, in Berlin on Thursday. PHOTO: REUTERS

And then, there are technological developments such as webinars and online chats which now allow European leaders to engage directly with the public without using the media as an intermediary. Overall, therefore, the crisis has increased direct interactions between rulers and the ruled.

And, by appearing to handle the pandemic well, some European leaders have consolidated their popularity. Chief among them is the German Chancellor. Just a few months ago, Dr Merkel - who has ruled Europe's biggest country for the past 15 years - was on her way out; her coalition government was increasingly unpopular, and the electorate was yearning for fresh faces.

But the crisis played to her strengths. Her extensive experience, not only as a long-serving leader but also as a scientist by training, proved to be a priceless political asset; she is largely credited for ensuring that, although Germany experienced a high coronavirus infection rate, its mortality figures remained among the lowest in Europe.

Video clips of Dr Merkel's simple and clear explanations of how to prevent the pandemic from spreading have circulated throughout Europe and are considered perfect examples of how politicians should engage with the public on what are otherwise complex technical matters.

And the rewards duly came: Her personal approval ratings are now at around 80 per cent, and her ruling Christian Democrats are soaring in the polls. There is even talk that she may go back on a promise to retire from politics after next year's elections.

Another leader whose fortunes improved because of his competent handling of the pandemic is one other Europeans usually pay little attention to: Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. His country may have been battered by the economic hardship of a long-running financial crisis, but he surprised many with his energetic response to the emergency, and may usher as early as this week a gradual return to normal life.

"Having gone through another crisis 10 years ago, Greek people realised that sacrifices early on will give us better results later on", says former prime minister George Papandreou, who ran Greece a decade ago when the country faced bankruptcy. The message from Greece is that being small and vulnerable is not an obstacle to holding the pandemic in check.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also strengthened his position. Although there have been plenty of disputes about his government's preparedness and alleged delays in responding to the pandemic, opinion polls indicate that around 60 per cent of Britons support him now, although this probably makes little practical difference, since Mr Johnson, who enjoys a healthy overall parliamentary majority, does not have to face the electorate before 2024.

But the biggest political surprise comes from France. Mr Macron has led debates in Europe about both handling the crisis and preparing the continent for the economic challenges that will follow. He also missed no opportunities for long speeches to his electorate usually delivered in the same gilded office used by General Charles de Gaulle, France's legendary war-time leader.

But neither his activism nor his appeal to French history appears to have worked. An extensive survey of French opinion published by Le Monde, one of the country's top newspapers, last week revealed that just under a third of the French electorate has any confidence in the President.

More ominously still, only 39 per cent of the French believe their rulers managed the crisis well, half the comparable figure for either Germany or Britain.

"The French government has already lost the confidence battle", says Dr Bruno Cautres, who runs the surveys unit within Sciences Po, one of France's elite educational establishments.

This gloomy conclusion may be premature. Mr Macron's popularity was already low before the pandemic started, and there will be plenty of opportunities for him to woo the electorate, including how he manages the economy after the lockdown measures are lifted.

Still, all European politicians know that they remain in uncharted territory, in a period when anything can happen.

"We are all embarking on the unthinkable", Mr Macron told Britain's Financial Times in an interview last week.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 26, 2020, with the headline The Covid-19 crisis' uneven impact on Europe's political landscape. Subscribe