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Overcoming the European Progress Illusion

Future of Europe / COMMENTARY
Fabian Zuleeg

Date: 26/04/2023
Progress made in Europe in dealing with the fundamental transformations Europe faces (including climate change), the "permacrisis", and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while significant, isn’t enough to address the accelerating, systemic challenges we now face. This European Progress Illusion needs to be recognised and addressed to prevent a widening gap between what is and what ought to be done.

EUrope faces unprecedented simultaneous and interconnected challenges within a fragmented and polarised domestic and global landscape. It has to deal with the long-term effects of the "permacrisis", such as reduced social, political and economic capacity to deal with new challenges and reengineer its political, economic, social and environmental model to deal with fundamental transitions (technology, sustainability and demography). Furthermore, the watershed moment of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, and by extension against liberal democracy, necessitates not only immediate reactions but a fundamental change to how the EU works, requiring a rethink across all policy areas.

To move forward, we need to recognise that we are falling collectively for a “European Progress Illusion”: the mistaken belief that the incremental policy progress made in addressing these crises as groundbreaking as they are, including the Recovery and Resilience Fund (RRF) and the European Peace Facility (EPF), is sufficient to address the timing, scale, and scope of the current interrelated, systemic challenges.

Moving forward

Despite, or maybe because of, the challenges the EU has faced, much progress has been made, and the EU today is barely recognisable from a few years ago. Within the context of the pandemic, common procurement of vaccines and an unprecedented EU borrowing instrument, the Recovery and Resilience Facility, was born. Brexit brought an innovative and effective new process to deal with the unprecedented divorce proceedings. The election of Trump led to greater unity between European partners. Global challenges prompted the EU to move towards strategic autonomy, put in place a range of new trade instruments, and begin to implement a European industrial policy. Internally, the challenge from countries moving towards illiberal democracies is at least partly addressed by withholding funding from the countries in question.

The EU has also taken strides towards the fundamental transformations required, in particular focusing on sustainability and climate change action. Not only has the EU set ambitious targets, but the Green Deal has also been a crucial step in reorienting the European economy towards a more sustainable economic model. At the same time, attempts have been made to share the burden within and between countries to ensure fairness and maintain public support, as well as contribute to the global process of limiting emissions.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, many feared that the response from the EU would be half-hearted, particularly given its energy and resource dependency. But, prompted by the US administration, the EU reacted positively, hosting refugees, providing political, financial, and even military support to Ukraine, numerous sanctions packages, as well as investment and reform in many sectors, including energy and security. While unity was not always perfect and, at times, member states acted unilaterally, overall, the response has been swift, united, and decisive.

Rising to the challenge?

A history of remarkable progress over recent years has led many to conclude that the EU was advancing to meet the challenges posed by the crisis, proving, once again, that the Union always emerges strengthened from crises. This led many people to conclude that the EU will rise to future challenges, taking the necessary steps in the end when ‘there is no alternative’. While this point of view does not stipulate that the EU is doing everything right or that the process will be without significant hiccups, it builds on the observation that the EU is progressing on a positive trajectory, albeit sometimes slower than one might hope for, in the form of accelerated "muddling upwards".

This narrative might have worked in the past, but it dangerously underestimates today’s challenges. While there is real progress, linear responses will not be sufficient to address exponentially growing problems, given that we are facing multiple interconnected systemic and structural crises and transformations. Moreover, given the different growth rates of challenges versus responses, we are falling further and further behind. This is the European Progress Illusion: the erroneous belief that timing, scale and scope of positive actions are sufficient to address exponentially growing challenges.

A new level of crisis

Reacting fast and decisively is crucial, not least since many structural changes, fundamental reforms and large-scale investments will take time to deliver. For instance, rebuilding Europe’s defence capacities, reforming the EU institutions or rethinking industrial policy and energy will take time to deliver. During this time, Europe will fall even further behind. The narrative that EUrope will deliver in the end, once it becomes clear that there is no alternative, is thus doubly questionable. Not only do we not know whether this is the case, but given the intractable problems we face and increasing internal differences, it would be too late to start these long-term change processes.

Even significant step changes in responses will only buy a temporary reprieve unless policy can change the underlying trends and relationships. To effectively address the challenges, our actions must have a systemic impact: they must either change the dynamics of the challenge (making it more manageable by, for instance, turning exponential trends into linear ones) and/or change the nature of the response to match the exponential nature of the crises through systemic changes. At the same time, given the interconnected nature of the crises and transformations, there needs to be a whole system response, considering the trade-offs between different policy actions to avoid setting off cascades of unintended consequences in other policy fields.

The Progress Illusion in action

This is not a theoretical problem but one we confront across several policy areas, from climate change to EU reform, industrial to foreign policy, and challenges to our democracy to international economic governance. Take, for example, climate change. We need to decouple energy and emissions from growth and employment and find a way to make us systemically and persistently produce lower emissions (rather than the temporary reductions we see in economic downturns), also to convince the rest of the world to follow a similar path. Otherwise, the gap between where we are and where we should be will widen over time, even if we take positive steps to reduce emissions.

The watershed moment of Russia’s invasion makes the Progress Illusion even more salient. Not only does the new era accelerate Europe’s pre-existing challenges, but the continent also faces a direct threat to security and stability. Simply put, it is a matter of war and peace, and if Europe believes it can solve this problem with what's already been done, then Europe’s future, and European lives, will be jeopardised. Only if Europe swiftly builds the capacity and capability to protect itself will it be able to ensure that Europeans can defend their values and interests in future.

Making real progress despite political constraints

How do we dispel EUrope’s Progress Illusion? The first step must be self-awareness. We must acknowledge that progress can only be measured relative to the problems we try to tackle. While having a positive narrative is important, this becomes counterproductive when it leads to insufficient recognition of the issues or even complacency. We need to start recognising that today’s interrelated challenges won’t be solved by tinkering at the edges but only through fundamental and systemic changes that must begin now.

This is challenging – it requires real trade-offs and painful choices. It requires foregoing some of today’s living standards for the welfare and security of future generations. This requires changes to how we create policy, including, for example, how we deal with risk and uncertainty and how much we value future outcomes over current ones. It also necessitates a political commitment to achieve buy-in for incurring pain today to prevent greater pain tomorrow. Political leadership becomes an imperative, requiring the investment of political capital rather than nice Sunday speeches - but so far, we have struggled to overcome the rhetoric-actions gap.

But what is the alternative? If we continue to cling to the Progress Illusion, we will fall further and further behind, and we will fail future generations, not addressing today’s crises and the necessary transformations. The Progress Illusion is a dangerous barrier preventing us from recognising and taking the decisive steps that are required right now.

Fabian Zuleeg is Chief Executive and Chief Economist at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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