Press play to listen to this article
When the coronavirus crisis first hit back in March, European leaders and their advisers enjoyed a significant boost in support — but voters are becoming more discerning.
Poll after poll showed the public rallying round the flag as governments struggled with a health and economic crisis on a scale not seen since World War II. As public shock has given way to a need for endurance, though, voters have begun asking tougher questions, and comparing how those in charge of their country’s response have fared.
Here’s POLITICO’s assessment of who has come out of the crisis well so far — and who hasn’t.
“Fifth term due to corona?” Germany’s largest tabloid Bild asked in a headline in early April.
It was (probably) a rhetorical question because Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly ruled out remaining in office after her current term ends in 2021. But it was also a testament to how well she is perceived to have managed the pandemic, a global emergency that has meant she again dominated the German political stage after weeks of chatter over her succession.
The most recent Politbarometer poll conducted by public broadcaster ZDF showed that she is the Germans’ favorite.
As a result Merkel, who in April delivered an unprecedented televised speech committing Germans to the harsh lockdown measures the government was to impose on them, remains the country’s most popular politician.
The most recent Politbarometer poll conducted by public broadcaster ZDF showed that she is the Germans’ favorite, just ahead of Bavarian state premier Markus Söder, one of the possible candidates to succeed her as chancellor. POLITICO’s Poll of Polls puts her CDU/CSU alliance on 39 percent, up 12 points on the start of the crisis.
The U.K. prime minister, by contrast, is not having a good crisis.
Leaving aside his own hospitalization in April with COVID-19 — even his most bitter opponents would cut him some slack for that — Johnson has blundered from misstep to calamity in his response to the crisis.
There was the decision to enter lockdown later than other countries. (A week earlier could have halved the death toll, said one key scientific adviser.) There was the failure to ramp up testing and tracing for months culminating in the decision Thursday to abandon a contact tracing app that the government had been trialing for weeks. There has been the explosion of cases in elderly care homes, seeded by coronavirus patients discharged from hospitals without testing. And there has been ridicule for Johnson’s bungled explanation of his government’s “stay alert” exit plan from lockdown.
The U.K. has a tragic toll of over 300,000 recorded cases and more than 42,000 recorded deaths from COVID-19 — the worst in Europe and behind only the U.S. and Brazil globally.
Despite the terrible figures, the British public looked as though they might be willing to give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt given the unprecedented challenges his government faced. That was until Johnson decided to defend his chief adviser Dominic Cummings despite what to many people looked like a flagrant breach of lockdown rules. The government’s lead over Labour cratered by 8 percentage points in a week as a result.
Things look rosier for U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, although perhaps that’s not surprising when you are the guy handing out free money to a massive chunk of the population. As finance minister, he has been in charge of dealing with the huge economic impact of the crisis. And while the worst fallout in terms of bankruptcies and job losses may be still to come, the government’s furlough scheme — costing £19.6 billion up to June 7 and involving 8.9 million workers — is generally viewed as a success.
An Ipsos Mori poll last week found that 60 percent of respondents thought Sunak has handled the crisis well, with just 14 percent saying he has done badly. This includes a majority (54 percent) of Labour voters. Ladbrokes has the 40-year-old as the favorite to be the next prime minister.
But Sunak’s popularity could well turn out to be short-lived, given the gloomy outlook for European economies hit hard by the coronavirus crisis. Betting odds may well change once Sunak turns off the money tap.
Meanwhile in Sweden, the country’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has been taking a large share of the blame for Stockholm’s liberal coronavirus response and the high death rate it has been associated with.
The Swedish public has become increasingly critical of the government’s coronavirus approach.
Earlier this month Tegnell conceded in an interview that he would not take all the same steps if he could go through the pandemic again from the start. However, he did not say Sweden’s approach had been all wrong, given it is still unclear how it will play out in the longer term.
Nonetheless, the Swedish public has become increasingly critical of the government’s coronavirus approach, which was largely devised by Tegnell.
The Austrian chancellor has sometimes been ridiculed for his ebullient descriptions of his government’s performance during the crisis.
“Our chancellor has communicated the pandemic … as if it were a ski race, with four Austrians in the top three places,” Austrian comedian Josef Hader joked in May, alluding to Kurz’s frequent public appearances in which he lauded his government’s crisis management.
But while self-praise may have earned Kurz and his conservative ÖVP party the disdain of the opposition, voters appear to be reasonably satisfied. When the chancellor promised a “resurrection after Easter” in April, with pandemic containment measures at their most restrictive, his approval peaked at 55 percent. The country’s relatively low infection rate also meant lockdown measures could be eased weeks earlier than elsewhere in Europe.
In the Brussels bubble, Thierry Breton seems determined not to waste the crisis.
The internal market commissioner took bold action to mitigate the effect of the pandemic as early as February and March so that his name was swiftly added to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s coronavirus task force.
Breton’s push in April for a “European Industrial Recovery Fund” that would cost €1.6 trillion surprised many and irritated some. But it was also ahead of the curve. He and Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, later wrote a joint op-ed arguing for funding the coronavirus recovery with European joint debt. Though the mechanism for raising money is different, EU leaders are now discussing a proposal to raise €750 billion from the financial markets to fund grants and loans to regions and sectors hardest hit by the crisis.
The commissioner’s performance during the pandemic may well have added to his reputation as a crisis manager in Europe, while his boss Ursula von der Leyen has had more of a bumpy ride, not least due to Breton’s solo actions.
Macron declared “war” on the coronavirus in mid-March, when he told the French people that their movements were going to have to be restricted severely.
Then came the lockdown, and with it recovering approval ratings for the French president, who had been through difficult political times before the crisis.
POLITICO’s Poll of Polls put Macron’s approval at 33 percent on January 24, the day the first coronavirus case was reported in France. By mid-April it had gone up to 41 percent, his best in two years, giving the president credit for his handling of the crisis, even though the state’s overall performance had been viewed more critically.
However, things are now starting to look more difficult again for Macron. Polling numbers have dipped as French voters look across the border at Germany, where Berlin is seen as having done a better job of coping with the pandemic.