Despite the fatigue with the pandemic and the longing for stability and predictability, Europe has entered the age of ‘permacrisis’, in which volatility, uncertainty, and a prolonged sense of emergency have become the new normal, argue Ricardo Borges de Castro, Fabian Zuleeg and Janis A. Emmanouilidis.
Crisis fatigue has become a widespread sentiment in Europe. There is no immediate end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention the inevitable and fundamental economic challenges that will follow. Internal social and political cohesion, and respect for European values, continue to be under pressure in different corners of the EU, and the geopolitical environment remains in flux.
At the same time, climate change and technological innovation continue to accelerate, pushing our society towards a radically different future.
Many across the EU are longing for stability and predictability – even boredom. But they will be disappointed: rather than being the exception, a state of permacrisis will be the environment in which Europe will have to continue to operate.
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.
Volatile new normal
We cannot predict the outcome of many of these processes and, often, the worst-case scenario will not materialise. Europe has repeatedly proven that it is much more resilient than many doomsayers have predicted. But some ghosts of the past will return, and new challenges will emerge, including unforeseen ‘black swans’.
Once we have managed to master the current pandemic, we will not enter a stable ‘new normal’ but a radically and regularly changing environment characterized by high levels of uncertainty, fragility and unpredictability. In times of permacrisis, 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 the potential ramifications of collective inactivity also carry a heavy price. Underlying this challenging environment is political volatility, shifting voter support, weak coalition governments, a 24-hour news cycle, growing disinformation campaigns, and high expectations to deliver solutions to the multiple crises that we will continue to face.
Is the EU ready?
The past decades have shown that EU decision-making is ill-prepared for this age of permacrisis, both in terms of strategic anticipation and in delivering speedy and decisive action when crises hit the Union and its member states.
The functioning of EU governance will increasingly rely on national leaders being able and willing to overcome domestic constraints and act more in the European interest. But this is proving more and more difficult. Crises also require flexibility, but the EU’s basic DNA is based on a rather rigid legal framework.
Tight rules and complex legislative mechanisms can be overcome in an emergency, as we have seen in previous crises, like in the ‘euro crisis’ or the ‘migration crisis’. But the experience of the past 15 years has also shown that decisions taken at the Union’s highest political level often lead to a crisis of legitimacy, with many arguing that the EU oversteps its competences or even moves beyond the boundaries of the law.
The age of permacrisis necessitates 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.
Given the high levels of interdependence and the need to ensure a fair burden-sharing between countries, severe crises need to be dealt with at the EU level. But are member states willing to provide the EU with the necessary means?
Changing to stay relevant
Fulfilling the Union’s potential under the conditions of the permacrisis will require structural changes. The EU27 need to step up ongoing efforts to build strategic foresight capacity and increase flexible policy instruments and funding, including crisis contingencies, so that the Union will be ready to swiftly respond when problems flare up.
It will also require experimentation and the ability, as well as the political backing, to change course when solutions are not working. Rather than relying on the current rigid legal governance approach, which is often designed to constrain the EU’s actions, the Union must be able to exercise executive powers more flexibly when facing emergencies.
It is 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.
The ‘Barnier Method’, involving the setting up of a Task Force with a clear focus and mandate including sufficient flexibility and decision-making capacity to execute its objectives, could lead the way. The Brexit experience has shown that it is possible to maintain unity between member states while ensuring the full involvement of EU institutions.
The innovative structures and processes applied in the context of Task Force 50 should be a lesson that can also be applied to deal with exceptional future challenges.
The Conference on the Future of Europe offers an opportunity to trigger a more fundamental debate on how to structurally enhance the Union’s ability to deal with future storms.
The Conference should provide the framework for a wide exchange of the lessons learned from previous and current crises. It is an opportunity to debate what citizens expect from the EU and how the Union must prepare and be equipped to tackle crises more effectively.
The age of permacrisis has already arrived and only by changing can the EU remain relevant and deal with the new chapters of the permacrisis that are sure to come. Inertia is not an option if the Union and its members want to deliver the crisis responses European citizens expect and deserve.