The last decade of Europe introduced a series of crises that challenged the stability of the continent and visions of integration outlined by the European Union. As the world continues to recover from the Covid-19 health emergency, Europe finds itself confronting a permanent state of insecurity as it navigates new EU-UK relations and a Ukraine-Russian war. The normalizing feature of emergencies throughout these past decades necessitates theoretical considerations on the nature of crisis to reformulate what it means to live through these moments and its effects on societal systems. This article aims to begin these considerations, by drawing on insights from Europe to discuss the continual and intersectional dimensions that define a crisis.
Written by Eva Lopez, MA student in International Relations at Queen Mary Paris.
This blog is part of a student-led blog series called The State of Permanent Emergency in Britain and Europe.
The last decade in Europe is marked by a multitude of crises, which led to predictions that the power and structures of the European Union (EU) are fraying away (Rosato, 2011). Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic served to amplify the consensus amongst academics such as Brack (2021), Gürkan (2021), Ladi (2020) and Wolff (2020) that Europe is undergoing a permanent state of emergency as they compound the pressures induced by past events like the eurozone and migrant crisis. Yet, claims that the EU’s institutions are weakening were challenged by the adaptability, resilience, and unity they demonstrated throughout Brexit, the pandemic, and the war in Ukraine. Deconstructing the concept of crisis, therefore, seems necessary for refining theoretical predictions. This process requires reconsidering the nature of a crisis to capture what it means to live in a permanent state of crisis (Hines, 2021). Crises are typically identified by language evoking disruption or the “endings of current societal systems” (Hines, 2021). However, viewing crisis only as a ‘systemic rupture’ introduces risks of establishing ‘linear predictions’ that minimize the intersectionality of economic, social, and political factors that influence how crises are perceived or managed (Hines, 2021). The contemporary crisis of Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic and Ukraine war exemplify the spillover effects of these three dimensions and demonstrate that the connection between these factors remains a commonality amongst all crises.
Stuart Hall’s work on conjunctural analysis is beneficial for moving beyond categorizing crises as singular and considering their nature as one with multiple levels (Hall, 1979). Viewing crisis with such totality assists in uncovering the political undertones that influence how societies react to the word ‘crisis,’ and is beneficial for understanding the future of the EU and of EU-UK relations. Brexit and the pandemic show how a crisis represents moments of shock that produce both societal and systemic changes. Nonetheless, the resilience of the EU and continuation of an EU-UK relationship indicates that what is in crisis is best revealed by considering both the aspects of society that no longer work, as well as the utility of crisis (Hines, 2021). For example, the ability of both EU and UK officials to leverage narratives within crises indicates that while a crisis produces disruptions, they paradoxically serve new political configurations. Similarly, the Ukraine war is providing an opportunity for strengthening security cooperation within Europe. This article will focus primarily on the events of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic to consider what crisis can teach us about institutional resilience and navigating this permanent state of emergency in Europe. It will begin first by considering the theoretical gaps that led to false predictions of the EU’s future and why Brexit did not weaken the EU’s unity. Afterwards, this article will discuss how studying the impact of the pandemic helps us understand the scope of a crisis and how it affects societal systems.
Brexit and the Utility of Crisis for Unity
At first sight the events of Brexit strengthen claims that the EU is weakening. Yet, utilizing a conjunctural approach to the Brexit crisis is valuable for improving theoretical predictions as it analyzes the series of historical trends and political movements to provide understanding of present situations (Clark, 2010). Considering the historical moments of EU-UK relations shows that Brexit was a culmination of ongoing national processes and not necessarily indicative of a crisis of the EU. On the other hand, this approach is similarly useful for considering the historical utility of the word crisis amongst EU officials to strengthen unity and solidarity of the European project. Furthermore, the Article 50 negotiations demonstrated a remerging sense of unity and collaboration amongst EU member states (Jenson and Kelstrup, 2019). These negotiations can be understood through a rational actor model, where both the EU and the UK aimed to maximize their interests (Dunin-Wasowicz, 2017). Yet, to predict the levels of unity and cohesion of these actors, theoretical frameworks must equally consider the role of internally constructed cognitive beliefs and ideologies that guide decision making. Finally, aside from political actors, unity of the EU throughout a crisis is explainable by assessing the value citizens place on the benefits provided by EU membership and must be emphasized in EU integration theories.
Beyond the UK’s decision to leave the EU and the Article 50 negotiations, analyzing the role of crises play in shaping the state of current EU-UK relations is critical. This relationship is defined by necessary cooperation due to shared geopolitics, security, and economic interests. Yet, the shift of political and regulatory frameworks between the EU and the UK will mean that cooperation at times will be eclipsed with tensions that resemble an ongoing crisis between the two actors. Issues such as financial services, EU’s carbon-border adjustments and data sharing demonstrate areas where frictions arise (Lowe, 2021). However, the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis provided the most notable test for this new relationship and served as a pivotal juncture amongst leaders, who utilized the moment to articulate discourses related to the legitimacy of Brexit and EU solidarity (Caliendo, 2022). While the pandemic represented a unique emergency, it intersected with preexisting political conflicts. This is evidenced by the hostility between the EU and UK throughout the initial stages of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, which served to benefit Britain, who pointed to the speed of their vaccination campaign to deflect negativity against Brexit (Caliendo, 2022). As a result, EU leaders adopted rhetoric that sought to break this narrative to (de)legitimize the growth of national responses occurring in Europe.
Covid-19, “The Crisis in Every Sphere”
As the pandemic placed the EU further into a permanent state of emergency, adaptability was higher than prior crises and expanded into a multitude of policy areas due to the large reaching effects of the crisis (Ladi and Wolff, 2020). Notably, the EU’s lack of expertise in public health policy initially caused Member States to take the lead on crisis responses. Yet, this did not imply that there was a diminishing role or capacity of EU institutions. Instead, each phase of the pandemic thus far highlights that the nature of the EU’s pandemic response reflected one of coordination and flexibility. This is exemplified through the “Commission Capitals Network,” which increased coordination efforts and information sharing on policy between the EU Commission and Member States (Fenner and Russack, 2020). Based on a mandate called on by the EU Council, the Commission created these networks as a platform for sharing information on policy areas between Member States and Commission DGs. The information in these coordinated networks was broad but pivotal for engineering coordinated policy responses to tackle the crisis. Additional internal initiatives such as the “Covid 19 Clearing House” for monitoring Europe’s medical supplies further indicate the EU’s coordinative role for crisis-management during the pandemic (Fenner and Russack, 2020).
Created by the Commission, the Clearing House monitored the supply chain of personal protective equipment (PPE), medical devices and medicines across Europe (Fenner and Russack, 2020). By working closely with national authorities and manufacturers, the Clearing House played a critical role in sourcing available supplies to Member States and resolving logistical blockages (European Commission, 2021). A key feature observed from the Commission’s internal initiatives is Ursula von der Leyen’s presidential approach to crisis-management, which bolstered adaptability and decision-making abilities. The European Council on Foreign Relations’ European Solidarity Tracker is a key tool for objectively assessing narratives on the “EU’s irrelevance” and informs one on the nature of the EU during crises (Busse, Franke, Loss, Puglierin, Riedel and Zerka, 2020). At the onset of the pandemic EU member states retreated inward and adopted national responses. Messages from Ursula von der Leyen encouraging European solidarity were critical for increasing medical and economic solidarity within Europe. The European Solidarity Tracker identifies that solidarity became an all-encompassing phenomenon and arguments of EU irrelevance were exaggerated (Busse, Franke, Loss, Puglierin, Riedel and Zerka, 2020). Actors at the EU level played a critical role in coordinating European responses by pursuing medical solidarity at the beginning of the pandemic, and four months later establishing economic collaboration. Therefore, in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, the EU’s rapid responses, flexibility and messages of solidarity reinvigorated political commitments towards the European Community.
Critical Discourses for Understanding Crises
Both Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic produced different opportunities to further understand the resilience of the EU and the general nature of crises (Brack and Gurkan, 2011). Brexit embodied elements of an ongoing process that is reflected in Britain’s history. Therefore, theoretical predictions of the future of EU-UK relations must consider both the influence that past and present tensions (economic, social, and political) will have on their manner of negotiating and cooperating. Britain’s reassertion of Brexit at the onset of the pandemic revealed that political spillovers take place in new or unique crises. Critical discourse analysis is useful for understanding the defensive responses that emerged throughout both events. Importantly, it reveals similarly to a conjunctural approach, how a crisis can be equally formative in legitimizing or disrupting political projects. This approach combined with assessing the EU’s adaptability and functions throughout the pandemic provides insight into its strengths to overcome such discourses and survive a crisis. Acknowledging this is beneficial for assessing how crises, while disruptive, may present utility for advancing political projects. In the case of institutional strengths, the Covid-19 emergency presented a unique moment as it simultaneously affected multiple policy areas, thus revealing areas that are best suited for Member States and the EU. Lastly, initiatives such as the Resilience and Recovery Fund, which sustained European economies and mitigated social impact demonstrated throughout the pandemic the unprecedented nature of institutional flexibility within the EU (European Commission, 2022).
Reassessing What it Means to Live in Crisis
The European Commission, Council and Parliament’s ability to rapidly adapt and still carry out ‘business as usual’ functions were pivotal for achieving successful crisis-management (Fenner and Russack, 2020). As the pandemic continues and the EU-UK defines its future relations; theoretical frameworks will need to consider what it means to live in crisis, how the language of crisis constructs political projects and the multifaceted nature of crises. Partaking in these considerations will demonstrate that while Brexit and Covid-19 represent vastly different crises; their similarities are seen through an intersection at the economic, social, and political level. This resonates with the Gramscian concept of an organic crisis, which is understood as the “confluence of crises in nearly every sphere” (Levenson, 2020). Viewing these emergencies from these perspectives enables theoretical considerations on why certain institutional structures dissolve or evolve. Additionally, it provides insight on why Brexit did not signal a complete rupture of the European Project but manifested into a new EU-UK relationship model.
At this juncture, the consensus in academic literature asserts that Europe is in a state of crisis. However, the EU demonstrated throughout Brexit, Covid-19 and now the Ukraine-Russian war that it can summon unity in moments of adversity. While at times hostile, the emergence of these crises and their long-lasting effects demonstrate the necessity of cooperation between the EU-UK. Therefore, to improve integration and disintegration theoretical frameworks it seems as though we must now work backwards by deconstructing the nature of crisis to reframe how we constitute understandings of a crisis and its political utility. If Europe and EU-UK relations are in a permanent state of emergency, how does that reshape conventional knowledge of crisis as a disruption and in what ways do responses to crises restructure societal systems? Secondly, as the EU proves its resilience, how do we reassess what aspects of society are in crisis? Addressing these questions ultimately will require considering what it means to live in moments of crisis as they relate to social forces, economic struggles, and political legitimacy (Clark, 2010). Final questions to consider:
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