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Leadership in a Time of Contagion

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has been compared to the 2008 financial crisis, the two episodes are quite different, not least in their cast of leading characters. Unlike the previous generation, today's European leaders have been shaped by a decade of austerity, refugee crises, and America's denouement as a global hegemon.

BERLIN – Google “Europe” and “crisis” and you will turn up 784 million results. So often do the two terms appear together that they might as well be a compound noun. With each new eurocrisis, commentators wring their hands over the question of whether the European project will survive.

On the surface, many eurocrises seem similar. European governments go through different phases of grief – from denial and anger to reconstruction and acceptance – and eventually blame the usual suspects. For northern Europeans, the problem always lies in southern Europe; for southerners, the Germans are the bad guys, and China is a potential savior.

But, of course, there are fundamental differences between the generation of leaders who steered Europe through the 2008 financial crisis and those now grappling with COVID-19. That became apparent this month when former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown embarked on a media tour to share the lessons from his own time in office.

Owing to his proactive response to the 2008 crisis, which included organizing the April 2009 G20 summit where world leaders agreed on a coordinated economic-policy response, some commentators have suggested that Brown single-handedly saved the global financial system. Now, Brown is asking why today’s leaders haven’t organized an equivalent summit to get ahead of the pandemic’s economic fallout.

Today’s leaders have a fundamentally different outlook. Brown, US President Barack Obama, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have given way to Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, and Emmanuel Macron (to which one might add Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz).

These leaders’ political instincts were shaped by the widespread backlash against the post-2008 establishment and globalization more generally. Today’s leaders are decidedly less Atlanticist than their predecessors were. As young adults, they witnessed America’s disastrous war in Iraq, and watched as a financial crisis born in the United States went on to wreak havoc across the entire world. Unlike their predecessors, they see America – or at least Trump’s America – more as of a source of problems than of solutions.

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Europe’s current leaders are also much less neoliberal in their economic-policy orientation. In the post-2008 period, even social democrats who had demanded large-scale stimulus measures turned out to be relatively conservative, more or less embracing austerity. Having lived through those years of belt-tightening, the new generation is much more interventionist, and not just in economic terms. In the 2008 crisis, the biggest fear – to quote Roosevelt – was fear itself, so governments needed to project normality. Today’s governments need to promote and harness fear in order to contain the deadly virus.

Nor does the current crop of leaders share the previous generation’s confidence in global governance. On the contrary, their first instinct in the face of COVID-19 was not to organize a global summit but to seal their borders and re-nationalize supply chains. This reaction may reflect the experience of the 2015 refugee crisis, when multilateral governance seemed to have failed spectacularly.

That brings us to the one leader who links the two eras: German Chancellor Angela Merkel. While political generations have come and gone, Merkel has remained. Having held her current office since 2005, she has seamlessly managed to change her perspective to reflect the prevailing instincts of each crisis.

She played an active role in the cooperative response to the 2008 crisis and became the face of the European Union’s Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture) in 2015, when the bloc took in some one million refugees. But now she has closed Germany’s borders. After 2008, she joined the neoliberal push for austerity; but she has now agreed to abandon Germany’s “black zero” (anti-deficit) budget policy, announcing that her government will do whatever it takes to save the German economy. Her legacy will most likely center around the fact that she held the EU together through multiple crises. But many people criticized her for not mentioning Europe at all in a recent national address – her first since taking office.

Given these tendencies, some people have argued that while the financial crisis leaders managed to bring the EU back from the brink, the corona generation is more likely to destroy it. Are they right?

The initial reaction to the pandemic does not bode well. European governments have been at odds with one another, and their citizens have increasingly questioned the very idea of interdependence, particularly vis-à-vis strangers beyond their immediate community. Then again, all eurocrises have cast a shadow on cosmopolitan interdependence. Each time a crisis has struck, Euroskeptics have criticized the European project for taking away national control, whether over borders, safety, or money. The COVID-19 moment is hardly the first time that Europeans have come to fear the consequences of deeper integration. There will be a battle of narratives in the months ahead about whether salvation will come from cooperation or isolation.

The task for the current leadership, then, is to make interdependence feel safe again. And in a strange way – given their lack of European religion – these leaders might have the credibility to make a new case for cooperation, by showing that it is the best way for European countries to protect their citizens.

On the economic front, the European Central Bank seems to be finding its way after some initial messaging flubs. It has committed to doing “everything necessary” to stabilize the eurozone and its constituent economies. European institutions now need to devise ways to supplement member states’ responses by funding research, procuring protective equipment and ventilators, sharing information, participating in global discussions, upholding the single market, and even developing “Corona Bonds.”

If EU leaders can demonstrate that the bloc is a partner rather than a threat to national sovereignty, the corona generation may yet lay a stronger foundation for Europe’s future than the 2008 generation did.

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