COVID-19 lockdown: The EU leaders who didn’t lead by example

The leader of the Polish Law and Justice (PiS) rulling party Jaroslaw Kaczynski (2-L) watches as soldiers carry a wreath toward the monument to his late twin brother, former President Lech Kaczynski, on Pilsudski Square in Warsaw, Poland, 10 April 2020. [EPA-EFE/RADEK PIETRUSZKA]

In the UK and in many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, leaders have shown lack of respect for coronavirus lockdown measures – the EURACTIV network looked into how some prime ministers and presidents have conducted themselves through the pandemic so far.

The political flavour of the past week in the UK is the pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top adviser, and Brexit-mastermind, Dominic Cummings and the widespread calls urging him to resign or be relieved of his position.

Cummings refused to go on Monday (25 May), saying he had done nothing wrong by driving 250 miles to northern England when Britain was under a strict lockdown. The story is unfolding and is damaging Johnson’s approval rating.

Leaders in other countries have made headlines by breaking lockdown rules during their countries’ emergency situation.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently had to apologise when he was seen in a restaurant with officials. People are advised to go to restaurants only with close family members.

Before that, influential powerbroker and leader of the ruling PiS party Jarosław Kaczyński broke all the lockdown rules when he paid tribute at the grave of his twin brother Lech, who died in the Smolensk plane crash 10 years ago.

Double standards

These double standards have sparked anger, because at the same time, several artists that protested against holding the Polish presidential elections were fined as much as €2,400 each – a huge sum.

They may have infringed social distancing by a few centimetres, carrying on 6 May an oversized letter from the main post office to the parliament building.

In the Czech Republic, President Miloš Zeman, met with the Interior Minister, Justice Minister, the National Bank Governor and other VIPs in the presidential residency in April, without any social distancing, in obvious violation of the lockdown measures.

The rules include a ban on gatherings of more than two people. The president’s spokesperson posted a photo which sparked outrage, because although the participants wore masks, they were in fact eating lunch.

Prime Minister Andrej Babiš also posted a photo in March taken during a “walk to have an ice cream” together with chief epidemiologist Roman Prymula.

In the photo, he is wearing a face mask but faced criticism on social media and made it worse by trying to explain that it is possible to loosen the mask eat the ice cream without removing it.

Babiš went to his hairdresser on the very same day that the hairdressers opened, posting on Facebook a photo in which he appears without a mask, which remains obligatory in closed spaces, even at the hairdressers.

The hairdresser wore a face-mask and a plastic shield.

In Romania, Prime Minister Ludovic Orban apparently dislikes wearing a mask. In many official photos posted on the government website, he is the only one not wearing one, while surrounded by people with masks.

Similarly, US President Donald Trump appears in many photos as the only one without a mask. It should be added that these situations occurred when wearing a mask was not mandatory.

In Bulgaria, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov hardly respects social distancing and has driven various ministers in his SUV on long rides, as part of his efforts to maintain his ‘macho image’ by ferrying himself across Bulgaria to visit different places.

His PR team broadcasts his comments live on Facebook.

The episode that caused the biggest uproar on social media though involved Deputy Prime Minister Krassimir Karakachanov, who was photographed sitting on a bench in a park when that was not allowed under the rules. He reportedly later paid a fine of 300 leva (€150).

In Slovenia, President Borut Pahor and two ministers were photographed walking side by side, without masks, during a visit to a southern border, at a time when public gatherings were forbidden.

A private lawyer filed a lawsuit against Pahor, but the state prosecutor rejected the complaint. He said it was impossible to establish any injured party and, therefore, he could not press charges.

Dutch courage

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte provided a striking counterexample to the rule-breaking, when he did not get to visit his dying 96-old mother in her final weeks because he was following lockdown restrictions.

EURACTIV asked Jean-Michel de Waele, a specialist in Central and Eastern Europe and professor of political science at the Free University of Brussels (ULB) to comment on the conduct of politicians under lockdown, in particular in the newer EU member states.

De Waele said that this was a “major issue” as political elites were “continuing to live above the law and feel protected by a political culture according to which once you are in power, you can allow yourself what is not allowed to normal citizens”.

“This also includes the understanding that if you get caught, someone will get you out of trouble – be it the prosecutor general or the prime minister. There is no understanding in many Central European countries that the political class should give the example, that any leader, even at local level, should be an exemplary citizen,” he added.

In his words, Scandinavia was the counter-example, as “in this space the political leader who makes a mistake resigns immediately”.

De Waele also highlighted a common denominator among the European politician showing disdain to observing social distancing and Donald Trump. But he added that the far-left was also attracted by the “lockdown refusal” discourse.

With reference to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who is probably the most vocal “coronavirus denier”, he said: “It’s a clash between what we would call, in Europe, a ‘Trumpist-Bolsonarian’ discourse, and the libertarians and the left.”

[Edited by Sam Morgan]

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