They move fast and break things, but they might just have the energy to fix Brusselsby Mark Leonard / June 5, 2020 / Leave a comment
Outside the historic chancellery building in Vienna’s Ballhausplatz 2 in early March, horses and carts ferried tourists languidly about the historic imperial centre while people sat outside the famous coffee houses enjoying the first rays of spring sunshine. They had no idea that Austria’s 33-year old chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, was about to lock the city down and force them into house arrest for the next few weeks.
The young chancellor had been studying the spread of coronavirus in neighbouring Italy with growing nervousness. After consultations with counterparts in far-flung places—Israel, Japan, Singapore and South Korea—on 11th March he became one of the first European leaders to introduce unilateral border closures. Although it was obvious that this precipitate action would have consequences far beyond his borders, Kurz’s instinct was not to call an international summit or co-ordinate with the rest of Europe, still less the United States.
This nationally-focused, fast-moving, action-hero-style leadership is the antithesis of established ideas about European unity and governance through consensus. It is also, however, emblematic of the way a rising generation of politicians are ruling across a continent in the grip of the Covid-19 crisis.
A couple of days after Kurz’s March press conference, Denmark’s youngest-ever prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, announced her own border closures not in an address in parliament, but in a Facebook post. In Germany, the youngest minister in Angela Merkel’s cabinet, 40-year-old health minister Jens Spahn, became the chief crisis manager. One of his first acts was to introduce an export ban on medical protective equipment, restricting its availability to other EU countries against the rules of the single market. The same happened in France where President Macron decided to confiscate all stocks of protective masks—including a consignment imported by a Swedish company destined for delivery to Italy and Spain.
In those two southern European powers so heavily hit by the virus, the politicians responsible for fighting the virus are also disruptors: former law professor and political outsider Giuseppe Conte and underdog-turned-prime minister Pedro Sánchez. Although they looked for European solidarity in this hour of need, they share the impatient instincts of their unruly peers.
Every crisis gives rise to a new cast of leaders with their own style, formative…