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

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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