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Europe’s regional leaders chafe at curbs from above as second wave hits

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First Madrid, then Marseille, and now Manchester and Munich.

Political leaders in some of Europe’s biggest cities have fiercely resisted coronavirus restrictions imposed by national governments in a sign of how disagreements between central, regional and local authorities are increasingly weighing on efforts to contain the pandemic.

The UK in the past week joined a group of countries where tensions between different levels of government have boiled over. Each has its own structural and historical quirks, but uniting them is the challenge of balancing co-ordination and decentralisation against a backdrop of often febrile politics.

“This is an absolutely central question everywhere in Europe,” said Nicolas Bauquet, associate director of the Institut Montaigne, a Paris-based think-tank, who has been researching the interaction between national and local authorities during the pandemic.

In France, Italy and Spain, as well as the UK, some local leaders have railed against the perceived crudeness and insensitivity of strict central government mandates.

But in regions including Scotland and Wales it is the other way round: leaders are frustrated that other administrations have refused to follow their calls for tougher measures.

The same is true in Munich, the Bavarian capital, in a country that has been praised for its decentralised management of the pandemic. Echoing mounting concern over the absence of a unified German policy, Markus Söder, the Bavarian premier, said last week that “federalism is increasingly reaching its limits”.

Markus Söder: ‘Federalism is increasingly reaching its limits’ © Lukas Barth – Pool/Getty

Responsibility for healthcare is devolved to regional executives in many parts of Europe, creating intrinsic strains between and among layers of government.

These were exacerbated when national authorities acquired emergency powers to restrict personal freedoms and business activity. Now, the second wave of infection is making frictions even harder to manage, as policymakers favour localised controls over economically damaging nationwide lockdowns. Such controls seem insufficient to some. To others they are punitive.

Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, accused Britain’s Conservative government of “playing poker with people’s lives” after it imposed tighter controls on his region against the wishes of municipal leaders. Mr Burnham, a Labour politician, had been negotiating for additional financial support for businesses and employees when Boris Johnson’s government, as he put it, “walked away”.

Andy Burnham said the UK government was ‘playing poker with people’ lives’ © Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty

Civic leaders in Marseille were furious last month when it became the first big French city to face tighter second-wave restrictions imposed from Paris, including the closure of bars and restaurants. The Association of French Mayors accused the government of adding a “crisis of trust to a crisis of health”.

In Belgium, which is fighting one of the highest infection rates per capita, the crisis has renewed questions about co-ordination in a divided and decentralised nation. Its struggles were underscored last week when Sophie Wilmès, who led the country’s pandemic response as prime minister until a new government was formed this month, was herself admitted to intensive care with Covid-19.

Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte has sought to pre-empt renewed skirmishing between Rome and northern regional presidents from the nationalist opposition League by devolving decisions over fresh restrictions to the regional level. Critics have accused him of an absence of leadership.

Similarly, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez said in August that it was up to individual regions to ask the central government to grant them emergency powers to deal with the crisis. Over the past two days, after infections soared across Spain, at least 10 of the country’s 17 regions have made such requests. In response, Mr Sánchez’s cabinet met on Sunday to declare a “state of alert” to allow regional administrations to impose curfews.

The Spanish central government and the regions also agreed last week on a common “traffic lights” system to help decide when to tighten restrictions.

But the relationship between Mr Sánchez’s Socialist-led government and the regions has been marked by tension at many points during the pandemic. The biggest clash has been with the conservative regional administration of Madrid, which has high infection rates but is fearful of the economic impact of tough curbs. When, despite his previous words about leaving the initiative to the regions, Mr Sánchez imposed exit and entry restrictions on the capital this month, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, Madrid’s conservative leader, denounced the move as “authoritarian”.

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, leader of the regional administration of Madrid, described central government intervention as ‘authoritarian’ © JuanJo Martin/EPA-EFE

Critics claim Spain’s devolved governance model remains broken. Others blame the country’s highly charged political culture.

“The lack of co-ordination between central government and the autonomous communities has been a fundamental issue in Spain,” said Eva Sáenz, professor of constitutional law at the University of Zaragoza. “But this is not a structural problem or a legal problem. We have a political problem. We have a problem of polarisation. And it has spread to all levels of government.”

In Britain, the pandemic has highlighted to many English voters the asymmetric nature of devolution, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland enjoying a high degree of autonomy while England remains heavily centralised bar a handful of directly elected metropolitan mayors. The metro mayorships outside London were created from 2017 and the pandemic has become the starkest test yet of their influence.

In both the UK and Spain, the devolution settlement is still contested, with strong secessionist forces in Scotland and Catalonia. Cristina Fasone, assistant professor of comparative public law at Rome’s LUISS university, said: “The UK, Spain and to a lesser extent Italy are examples of where regionalism was not working well before the coronavirus crisis.”

The UK and Spain lack the features of a federal system like that of Germany that create a culture of negotiation, Ms Fasone said. Germany’s 16 states, or Länder, all have the same powers and are all represented in the upper chamber of the federal parliament.

In Germany, it is the states that are responsible for protecting the population from infection, so from the start of the crisis policy was hammered out not by the national government alone but in regular meetings between the 16 state governors and Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Nathalie Behnke, a political scientist at Darmstadt’s Technical University who analysed all the coronavirus-related decisions taken by the Länder between mid-March and mid-June, concluded that Germany’s federal system had produced “objectively better decisions”. Regional governments were able to react to local outbreaks more effectively but also co-ordinated closely with each other.

Yet the benefits of Germany’s decentralised system have been less obvious in recent weeks. Earlier this month a regular conference of the governors and Ms Merkel failed to come up with a new set of tough, uniform rules to deal with a sudden spurge in infections. Mr Söder, the Bavarian premier, said the central government needed more power to issue federal regulations, such as a requirement to wear masks in crowded places.

“But the others just didn’t want to listen,” said Ursula Münch, head of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing. “They didn’t want to follow him, and so there was no agreement. And that’s when Germany’s federal approach doesn’t really work.”

Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels



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Europe

CDU leadership backs Armin Laschet’s bid to be German chancellor

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Armin Laschet won a key victory in his campaign to succeed Angela Merkel when the party he leads, the Christian Democratic Union, backed him as their candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election.

The CDU governing executive’s decision to back Laschet was a setback for Markus Söder, governor of Bavaria, who has also laid claim to the title.

The move was expected, but could prove controversial. Söder is by far the more popular politician, and many CDU MPs had argued in recent days that the party would have a much better chance of winning September’s election with Söder as their candidate.

After throwing his hat into the ring on Sunday, Söder said he would accept the CDU’s decision. However, it is still unclear whether his party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, will accept Laschet as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate. The CSU’s executive is meeting later on Monday.

Sunday’s events threw the process for finding a successor to Merkel, who will step down this year after 16 years as Germany’s leader, into confusion. The CDU and CSU traditionally field a joint candidate for chancellor: that person is usually the leader of the CDU, which is by far the larger party.

Volker Bouffier, governor of the western state of Hesse, said the CDU’s executive had unanimously backed Laschet at a meeting in Berlin on Monday morning. He added, however, that no formal decision had been made on the issue.

Bouffier said the executive had made clear “that we consider [Laschet] exceptionally well-suited and asked him to discuss together with Markus Söder how we proceed”. He added that “the current polls should not determine the decision over [who we choose as] candidate”.

Since Laschet was elected CDU leader in January, the party has suffered a precipitous slump in the polls and that created an opening for Söder. He has frequently argued that the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate should be the politician with the best chances of winning in September.

Voters have blamed the CDU for the government’s recent missteps in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in particular the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations. Revelations that a number of CDU and CSU MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks also badly damaged the party’s image.

The malaise in the CDU was highlighted last month when it slumped to its worst ever election results in the two states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, which for decades had been Christian Democrat strongholds. National polls currently put support for the CDU/CSU at between 26 per cent and 28 per cent, way down on the 33 per cent it garnered in the last Bundestag election in 2017.

There was more bad news at the weekend for Laschet, who as well as being CDU leader is also prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. A poll for broadcaster WDR in NRW found that only 26 per cent of voters in the state are satisfied with the work of the regional government Laschet leads and only 24 per cent of voters consider him a suitable candidate for chancellor.

The slide in the CDU’s fortunes contrasts with the rise of the Greens. The party garnered 8.9 per cent of the vote in 2017 and is now polling at 23 per cent. It is seen as a racing certainty that it will be part of Germany’s next government.



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EU and UK edge towards accord on trade rules for Northern Ireland

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The UK and the EU are making progress in talks on how to apply post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, raising hopes of an agreement that could help reduce tensions that have spilled over into violence on the streets of Belfast.

Officials on both sides said that recent days of intensive contacts had given cause for optimism that the UK and EU can craft a “work plan” on how to implement the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets the post-Brexit terms for goods to flow between the region and Great Britain. EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic and his UK counterpart David Frost may meet to review progress this week. 

“They are advancing on a technical level and probably we will see a [Frost-Sefcovic] meeting rather sooner than later”, said one EU diplomat, while cautioning progress depended on firm commitments from the UK and its “unequivocal support” for the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Other EU diplomats and officials said strong UK engagement in the technical talks on implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol had raised hopes that an understanding could be reached. 

“The mood seems to have warmed up a bit — the tone of the discussions is quite good,” said one British official. 

The talks are a follow up to a draft plan about implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol that was submitted by the UK to Brussels at the end of last month — a step the EU said was essential to rebuilding trust after Britain unilaterally extended waivers for traders from some aspects of the rules in March. This move prompted EU legal action.

The discussions between British and EU officials in recent days have taken place against the backdrop of violence in Northern Ireland, stoked in part by resentment within the unionist community at how the protocol treats their region differently to the rest of the UK.

From April 2 there were eight consecutive nights of unrest in Northern Ireland, involving both unionist and nationalist areas. The police responded by deploying water cannons for the first time in six years.

The Brexit deal placed a trade border down the Irish Sea in order to keep commerce seamless on the island of Ireland. The Northern Ireland protocol requires customs and food safety checks for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Officials said the EU-UK talks now under way about implementation of the protocol cover a wide array of practical issues ranging from trade in steel and medicines to the policing of food safety standards, how to deal with residual soil on plant bulbs, and the construction of border inspection posts. 

“Technical talks are ongoing”, said an EU official. “Depending on the progress made at technical level, a political-level meeting may be held soon.”

But EU diplomats and officials also cautioned that more work remains to be done, especially on the thorny issue of applying food safety checks. Difficult talks also lie ahead on the timetable for putting particular measures in place.

Meanwhile Downing Street played down a report in The Observer that it was resisting proposals by Dublin for a special crisis summit to address the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland.

“We have not refused anything,” said a Number 10 official. “It’s something we will consider.”

However there are concerns on the British side about the wisdom of holding a summit in Northern Ireland with Irish government ministers at a time when pro-UK loyalist groups have been engaged in street violence.

Irish officials said taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Boris Johnson have spoken and would “maintain close contact over coming days”.



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France to offer mRNA jabs as second dose after AstraZeneca 

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France has become the second country after Germany to recommend that younger people who have had a first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine be given a different jab for their follow-up shot.

The mixed-dose approach has been recommended by health experts in both countries — despite there being little clinical trial data to support it — because of the slim risk that younger people can develop blood clots when given the AstraZeneca jab.

The World Health Organization reiterated its position on Friday that there was “no data on interchangeability of vaccine platforms”, noting further research was needed.

The move comes as the European Medicines Agency said it is also probing a possible link between the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and four serious cases of unusual blood clots in the US, where it is currently being rolled out. It is not yet being distributed in the EU or UK. The vaccine is based on an adenovirus vector, similar to the AstraZeneca shot.

The EMA said it was not yet clear whether there was a causal link. J&J said it is working with experts and regulators to assess the data. “Our close tracking of side effects has revealed a small number of very rare events following vaccination,” it said. “At present, no clear causal relationship has been established.” 

In France, the policy will affect roughly 530,000 people under age 55 who were given a first shot of AstraZeneca from early February to mid-March when they were eligible under its strategy of giving healthcare workers the vaccine, while reserving the mRNA vaccines for elderly people most at risk.

The Haute Autorité de Santé, a panel of medical experts which advises the government, has said they should be given booster shots from BioNTech/Pfizer or Moderna. France has changed course to use AstraZeneca only in people aged above 55 since the blood clot issue emerged.

France announced its decision on Friday after the HAS recommended the mixed-dose strategy. Germany took a similar stance in early April. 

Health minister Olivier Véran told RTL radio on Friday that the mixed-dose approach was “totally logical” given the analysis of European regulators and France’s desire to continue its vaccination campaign as the scientific evidence evolved.

European countries, whose vaccination campaigns have been slower than world leaders such as the US, Israel, and the UK, have been grappling with how to use AstraZeneca doses since the blood clot reports emerged, with some countries applying new age restrictions and others pausing its use entirely.

But with Covid-19 still spreading, officials are also seeking to reassure people that the AstraZeneca vaccine’s benefits still largely outweigh the risks. 

The European Medicines Agency recently established that there was a “possible link” between the AstraZeneca vaccine and unusual blood clots with low blood platelets that have mostly affected women under 60 years old, though regulators have said there is no specific risk factor by gender.

The EMA said it had examined at least 86 such reported cases and 16 deaths, and recommended updating the vaccine’s safety information to list the clots as a possible side effect.

Élisabeth Bouvet, a vaccine expert and member of the HAS, said on Friday that the mixed-dose approach was a practical solution intended to protect younger people, who are at lower risk of developing severe forms of Covid-19, from the risk of blood clotting side effects. “It is really a choice based on safety,” she said.

“Given that the protection of the Covid-19 vaccines begins to diminish after three months, these people need an additional dose,” she added. “The idea is to give mRNA vaccine as a second dose for this population in a ‘prime-boost’ strategy.”

Even in the absence of clinical data, Bouvet said that they believed the approach carried low risks of side effects and was likely to offer people additional protection given that the Covid-19 vaccines all aim at the same spike protein on the coronavirus.

“We think that this approach will work,” she said. “There is no reason to expect any particular side effects with mixed dosing but it would be good to study the immune response it creates.” 

Peter English, a retired Public Health England consultant in communicable disease control, said it was “reasonable” to use other vaccines, particularly in younger patients, until the risk of blood clots caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine has been clarified.

“If we are to achieve vaccine-induced herd immunity [not just through masks and social distancing] a high uptake of vaccination will be required in the groups most likely to spread the virus, not just in those most at risk if infected,” he said, noting vaccine mixing and matching has been done for other diseases. 

Trials studying a combination of vaccines, including AstraZeneca’s and Russia’s Sputnik V shots, are under way.



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