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Coronavirus Pandemic Tests Leadership Styles In U.K, Germany


The pandemic is testing different countries and their leaders. In Europe, one contrast is between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He is widely seen as a populist showman who rose to prominence writing deceptive news stories as a journalist. She is a trained chemist and a technocrat. So how are they doing? In a moment, we hear from NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin. We begin with NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Just a few months ago, Boris Johnson was riding high. In December, he won a huge electoral victory.


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: This Parliament is a vast improvement on its predecessor.


JOHNSON: And indeed, Mr. Speaker, I would say it's one of the best Parliaments this country has ever produced.

LANGFITT: And in January, Johnson finally delivered Brexit and displayed his trademark optimism.


JOHNSON: This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act in our great national drama.

LANGFITT: But analysts here say the pandemic has played not to Johnson's strengths as a speaker and campaigner but instead highlighted his flaws.

NICHOLAS ALLEN: Johnson's greatest weakness is probably his supposed lack of attention to detail.

LANGFITT: Nicholas Allen teaches politics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

ALLEN: He's not someone who is reputedly so good at the nitty-gritty.

LANGFITT: Critics say Johnson's government was slow to react to the pandemic, slow to test and still has no contact tracing out. The British Medical Journal called the response, quote, "too little, too late, too flawed." Britain's House of Commons is now back in session but, because of social distancing, nearly empty, leaving Johnson to defend himself without his usual cheering section against what Nicholas Allen says is a tough new opponent.

ALLEN: Criticisms of his performance have been, I think, brought into sharp relief by the new Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

LANGFITT: Starmer replaced Jeremy Corbyn last month as head of the opposition Labour Party. Once a top prosecutor, Starmer cross-examines Johnson at weekly sessions called Prime Minister's Questions. For instance, Johnson has characterized the government's performance as an apparent success, which Starmer challenged. The U.K.'s official death toll of about 35,000 is more than four times Germany's and the highest in Europe.


INSKEEP: That's not success. So can the prime minister tell us, how on earth did it come to this?

LINDSAY HOYLE: Prime Minister.

JOHNSON: Mr. Speaker, first of all, of course every death is a tragedy, and he's right to draw attention to the appalling statistics. At this stage, I don't think that international comparisons and the data is yet there to draw all the conclusions that we want.

LANGFITT: But the government used to compare the U.K. death toll routinely to other countries. Starmer noted that it stopped after deaths here topped Europe. Last week, Starmer questioned an additional 10,000 deaths in nursing homes.


KEIR STARMER: Can the prime minister give us the government's views on these unexplained death?

HOYLE: Prime Minister.

JOHNSON: Well, Mr. Speaker, coronavirus is an appalling disease which afflicts some groups far more than others, I think the whole country understands, and in particular the elderly. And...

LANGFITT: The Daily Telegraph called the prime minister's response a cascade of helpless waffle. Polls suggest Starmer's questions are taking a toll. In YouGov polls, Johnson's favorability ratings have fallen 8 points in the last month while Starmer's have risen accordingly. Some of Johnson's allies now want all lawmakers to return to Parliament despite the continued risks from the coronavirus. Analysts say Johnson's party members want to cheer him on and spare him more embarrassment.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: This is Rob Schmitz in Berlin. Before the advent of the coronavirus - before the world was social distancing, many Germans were distancing themselves from their chancellor, Angela Merkel.

JANA PUGLIERIN: Everybody in Germany and also outside Germany was lamenting the German paralysis and that Merkel was a lame duck and that Germany was absent from the global stage; Germany was not a true European country.

SCHMITZ: Jana Puglierin is head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

PUGLIERIN: Many people argued that they could not wait for the moment that Merkel would leave office to make way for her successor and a new coalition. And all of this is forgotten right now.

SCHMITZ: That's because this pandemic has proven Angela Merkel is one of the best crisis managers the world has seen.



SCHMITZ: In March, as it became clear the virus was spreading quickly, Merkel made an address to her nation, something she had never done apart from her annual New Year's address, says Sudha David-Wilp, deputy director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund.

SUDHA DAVID-WILP: But this time she took to the airwaves because she felt that this crisis was important enough that she had to speak to her fellow countrymen.

SCHMITZ: Jana Puglierin calls Merkel's speech a transformative moment for Germany.

PUGLIERIN: She's not known to be kind of good with big speeches like Emmanuel Macron, so that is not her strength. But this time, she appeared human and transparent. And so that made all the difference.


MERKEL: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: Merkel tells her countrymen, "We are a democracy. This is an historic task, and it can only be mastered if we face it together."

Merkel has a doctorate in quantum chemistry. This training was on full display weeks into the pandemic as she patiently explained the importance of keeping the R0 factor, or the virus's reproduction rate, below 1.0.


MERKEL: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: "If it climbs to 1.1," she explained, "Germany's hospitals will be overwhelmed by October; 1.2, July; 1.3, June."

She laid out the facts for all Germans to consider, and Sudha David-Wilp says her transparency throughout the pandemic has been refreshing.

DAVID-WILP: I said to myself - wow, I wish I had Angela Merkel as a science teacher in high school. I might have ended up in a different field.

SCHMITZ: And now, with Merkel's approval rating at an historic high in Germany, she's asking her country to join her in supporting a half-a-trillion-dollar EU relief package, one that will force Germany to pay more than any other member state on aid that will primarily go to the bloc's battered southern states. Merkel has gotten a lot of criticism for this in Germany, but Jana Puglierin says it's a bold move. Its largest economy is stepping up to support a stronger, united and more integrated European Union.

PUGLIERIN: I think it's really also about her legacy because it's her fourth term, she is not going to run again for reelection, and she really understands that this is a European moment.

SCHMITZ: A moment when Angela Merkel has yet again opted for unity over division, solidifying her legacy as a leader who, unlike the populists of the world, believes nations are stronger when they stand together.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.

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