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Europe in the age of permacrisis

EU Governance / COMMENTARY
Fabian Zuleeg , Janis A. Emmanouilidis , Ricardo Borges de Castro

Date: 11/03/2021
Rather than being the exception, a state of permacrisis will be the environment in which Europe will have to continue to operate for the foreseeable future. This will necessitate a change in EU decision-making, as well as new and recalibrated instruments and mechanisms to ensure more effective responses to future chapters of the permacrisis.

Crisis fatigue

One year after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the most widespread sentiment in the EU is crisis fatigue. To many Europeans, the continent has been in a challenging environment for far too long. There is no immediate end in sight to the health crisis, not to mention the inevitable structural economic challenges that will follow and persist for quite some time. Internal political cohesion and respect for European values continue to be challenged in different corners of the Union, and the geopolitical environment remains in constant flux. At the same time, all signs point toward radical change, including major transformations in technology and sustainability.

Many citizens (and even policymakers) are longing for stability and predictability – even boredom. We want to escape from the volatile environment with which we are confronted. And we recall that over the last two decades, rather than experiencing Fukuyama’s end of history, we have faced a severe poly-crisis that was characterised by multiple, often interrelated crises across a wide range of policy areas. These range from the 2008 financial and economic crisis, the ‘euro crisis’ and the ‘migration crisis’, to the challenges linked to authoritarian populism, global terrorism, Brexit and Trump.

The age of permacrisis

Europeans will be disappointed: we are living in an age of permacrisis, with one challenge seamlessly followed by the next. Rather than ‘defeating’ COVID-19, we will have to live with the pandemic and its consequences for years to come. And even if (global) vaccination helps us overcome this crisis, another pandemic will almost certainly hit us at some point in the future. The economic impact of COVID-19 is structural, not cyclical, so its effects will persist over time. Last but certainly not least, the crisis is a catalyst for existing trends: the necessary reforms to master the green and digital transformations will require an ongoing adaptation process, with both winners and losers across the continent.

Political uncertainty and change will remain our constant companions. We will soon witness the end of the Merkel era; challenges to the EU’s fundamental principles and rule of law will persist; authoritarian populism might re-emerge in the aftermath of the pandemic and will influence the 2022 French presidential election. Globally, China will continue to push for a greater role on the international stage, while Russia is likely to maintain its current disruptive path. Following the election of President Biden, transatlantic relations are currently witnessing a political honeymoon, but we must already consider the long-term sustainability of the current state of EU–US relations beyond 2024.

Of course, we cannot predict the outcome of many of these processes. In many cases, the worst-case scenario will not materialise. Europe has repeatedly proven throughout the poly-crisis that it is more resilient than many doomsayers like to think. But some ghosts of the past might return, and new challenges will emerge, including unforeseen ‘black swans’ – this has clearly been a lesson of the past decade. We might have to deal with resurgent old crises, such as the re-emergence of migration pressures, a potential fiscal crisis to follow the current record debt accumulation, and/or worsening impacts of climate change. We will also witness new challenges in, for example, the digital world, or the inevitable impact of long-term structural changes, such as Europe’s demographic timebomb or the rise of inequalities between and within countries.

A volatile ‘new normal’

In short, once we have managed to master the current pandemic, we will not enter a permanent ‘new normal’. Rather, Europeans will have to prepare for and adapt to a radically and regularly changing environment. The world we live in will continue to be characterised by high levels of uncertainty, fragility and unpredictability. In such times of permacrises, decisions will have to be taken swiftly and often only on the basis of partial evidence.

The consequences of wrong and delayed choices are potentially disastrous, but collective inactivity also carries a heavy price. Underlying this challenging environment is political volatility, with decision-makers confronted by shifting support, weak coalition governments, a 24-hour news cycle, growing disinformation campaigns, and high expectations to deliver solutions to the multiple crises.

Is the EU ready?

The past decades have shown that the EU and its decision-making mechanisms are not prepared for this age of permacrisis. From strategic anticipation and the forward planning of adequate, as well as timely, policy responses to upcoming challenges, to speedy and decisive action when crises hit. From ensuring buy-in and common delivery between the EU and member states to having sufficient competences (in both senses of the word, i.e. having the legal competence to act as well as the skills and ability) and adequate mechanisms to deal with these challenges. The EU has repeatedly fallen short and will continue to struggle to keep up the pace.

In part, this weakness is anchored in the nature of the EU. Crises require flexibility, but the EU’s basic DNA is based on a rather rigid legal framework. While tight rules and complex legislative mechanisms can be overcome in an emergency, as we have seen in previous crises, it then often leads to a crisis of legitimacy, with many arguing that the EU has overstepped its competences or even moved beyond the boundaries of the law.

Not addressing these structural deficiencies will continue to put pressure on the EU. The permacrisis implies that decisions increasingly become Chefsache, which can only be resolved at the Union’s highest possible political level. This is why we have witnessed an increasing concentration of decision-making in the European Council. This inevitably leads to bottlenecks and, in many cases, to decisions at the very lowest common political denominator. And often, once EU leaders have eventually reached a compromise, we subsequently witness that political decisions are not (fully) implemented, neither at the EU nor the national level.

Under these conditions, the functioning of EU governance increasingly relies on national leaders being able to overcome domestic constraints and act more in the European interest. National governments (and parliaments) are, in many cases, politically overwhelmed by this dual challenge. And in times of increasing political volatility at the national level, this phenomenon is likely to become even more challenging in the future.

The need for the EU

The enhancement of the Union’s ability to deal with the conditions of permacrisis is not necessarily, or at least not entirely, down to the EU institutions. There is an underlying question that member states must ask themselves: How willing are they to provide the EU with the means to address the challenges posed by the permacrisis? Of course, there are legitimate reasons for arguing in favour of retaining powers at the national level. But this comes at a price, as it leads to an increasing capability-expectations gap: the mismatch between the expectations of citizens and political elites and the Union’s ability to deliver on those expectations continues to widen, putting the EU’s relevance and legitimacy into question.

For example, it is hard to imagine the pandemic being under control if significant differences in controlling the epidemiological situation persist between EU countries, leading to an aggravated economic crisis for all. The challenges of climate change and technological transformation will only be addressed if there is a fair sharing of the burden of adjustment within and between countries. And so on, across the facets of the permacrisis. There is thus a strong logic behind dealing with this permacrisis at the EU level.

Changing to stay relevant

Fulfilling the EU’s potential under the permacrisis, in terms of what it can achieve, will require structural changes. Rather than rely on the current rigid legal governance approach, which more often than not is designed to constrain the EU’s actions, the Union must be able to exercise executive powers more flexibly when facing crises. In short, the EU must have more executive capacity or even governmental powers rather than governance.

In principle, the European Commission should even have certain advantages, such as being able to think and plan more long term, without the immediate political pressures ever-present in domestic politics. The EU should also be able to act in the collective interest of its member states, helping to enhance political cohesion. However, it remains to be seen how far and for how long a more ‘political’ Commission can continue to escape from increasing political pressures.

New ways and methods

Equipping the EU for the permacrisis will require reorganising and investing in new capabilities at the EU level, stepping up ongoing efforts to build EU-wide strategic foresight capacity, and increasing flexible policy instruments and funding. It will require the creation of crisis contingencies, so that the Union will be ready to swiftly respond when challenges flare up. It will also require experimentation and the ability as well as the political backing to change course when solutions are not working. Creating an emergency decision-making procedure that enables the Union to take decisions in a shorter period and an emergency funding mechanism that includes contingency funds and follows the form of the EU Solidarity Fund would be steps in the right direction.

It is also worth exploring new and innovative policymaking mechanisms that exceed the basic dichotomy between the traditional Community method and more loose forms of coordination between member states. In this context, the ‘Barnier Method’ could lead the way, given that it provides an exemplary approach of how to maintain unity between member states while ensuring EU institutions’ full involvement.

By forming a Task Force from across the Commission, combined with the role of a semi-political chief negotiator, and equipping the former with not only a clear focus and mandate but also sufficient flexibility and decision-making capacity to execute its objectives, the EU could effectively defend its interests despite very different economic and political costs and benefits for different member states. By being transparent and continuously engaging with member states and other stakeholders comprehensively throughout the process, the Task Force also maintained buy-in. The innovative structures and processes applied in the context of Task Force 50 and its succeeding body could be applied to deal with exceptional future challenges.

The Conference on the Future of Europe also offers an opportunity to foster a more fundamental debate on how to structurally enhance the Union’s ability to deal with future chapters of the permacrisis. The Conference should provide the framework for a wide exchange of the lessons learned not only from the COVID-19 health crisis but also other severe challenges that the EU and its members have experienced in the course of the last 15 years. One could use the opportunity to debate what citizens expect from the EU and how the Union must prepare to tackle future crises more effectively. At the end of the day, the Conference should prepare the grounds for adjusting the current decision-making mechanisms and providing more suitable financial instruments for enhancing the Union’s ability to deliver in times of crisis.

The age of permacrisis has already arrived and will continue to pose a severe challenge to Europe. To ensure the EU’s continued relevance, its decision-making and delivery mechanisms must be recalibrated to meet this volatile new normal. Only by changing can the EU meet the new chapters of the permacrisis that will inevitably come.

Ricardo Borges de Castro is an Associate Director at the EPC, and Head of the Europe in the World programme.

Janis A. Emmanouilidis is Director of Studies at the EPC.

Fabian Zuleeg is Chief Executive of the EPC.

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