Europe’s permanent state of crisis: post-COVID governance and critical human security

Critical Human Security and Post-Covid Public Policy[1] Blog Series. Blog No.2

By Dr Noemi Lenvai-Bainton, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol

Covid vaccine over EU stars

The post-COVID landscape in Europe is more uncertain than ever. Crippled by multiple, overlapping and intersecting crises, Europe is faced with fundamental challenges to its supranational governance, in a space in which multiple and overlapping authorities, capacities and issues emerge requiring an extremely complex coordination between different scalar governing structures.

The European Union has also come under extreme stress test during the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of testing its capacity for supranational governing and crisis management. As Lehne (2022) argues, Europe’s ‘permanent state of crisis’ since 2009 made it well versed in crisis management. Governing through economic and financial crises, Brexit, migrant crisis, demographic crisis, debt crisis, climate crisis, the pandemic has triggered further shocks in health and the economy. The war in Ukraine has further contributed to political instability and fragmentation, and the energy crisis, the economic crisis, and the inflationary pressures have led to the impoverishment of large sections of societies across the continent.

Critical human security is a crucial vantage point through which we can look at the challenges of supranational, or rather, interscalar governance in the European Union at this critical juncture. A critical human security approach comprised of a range of integrated dimensions of life, including health, economic, food, environmental and community security as well as personal and political freedom highlights the need for an intersectional analysis (Kennett, Kwon and Lee, 2023; UN, 2016; Newman, 2010), which rather than segmenting the crises into sectoral or scalar elements, integrates the key dimensions of governing and citizenship and keeps the concern of human security at the forefront of the analysis.

The challenges of the EU’s post-COVID governance

As governing crises become the new normal, the EU is facing enormous uncertainties around its fragile cohesion, political and geographical fragmentation and volatility of solidarity. Uniquely in Europe as a region, the crisis management during the pandemic has produced an interscalar dynamic, in which multiple layers of state capacities, legislative capacities, financial support, technical and logistical capabilities were deployed. EU institutions and policy making processes had to coordinate with national governments, transnational corporations, and other International Organisations in unprecedently complex circumstances and in a compressed time frame. The complexity of this governing landscape continues even after the pandemic. Here I am going to highlight three core challenges, namely the weakness of the social dimension, the challenge of intersectional future investment and finally the political challenges.

Despite a glorified language and discursive claims of ‘Social Europe’ with its ‘highest standards in broad social protection’, COVID has exposed the fundamental weaknesses of social Europe in terms of its fragmentation, poor safety nets and effects of privatisation (Hemerijck, 2021). For many social policy commentators, a central concern has been that Europe had entered the pandemic with a decade long austerity, welfare cuts, privatisation, financialisation, dualisation, disinvestment in public services, precarity, weakened regulatory capacity, and more broadly neoliberalisation. The techno-legal register which dominates the social dimension in the EU has also been argued to remain weak in response to the pandemic. The weakness of fundamental social rights, as well as the lack of the legal framework for health care and health related rights and legal protections highlighted the weakness of the EU social dimension (Safradin et. al, 2021).

The weakness of health and public health competences of the EU were compounded by the fact that health care capacities in many European countries have been declining for more than a decade; falling hospital beds, reduction in public health capacity, recruitment and retention crisis for doctors and nurses in almost all European countries were opening up the gap between demand and supply and foreshadowed the extensive waiting list and service shortages across different segments of health and social care services (refs.).

The second challenge centres around socio-economic cohesion, fiscal interventions, and innovation in the context of the fiscal response to COVID-19. Following the COVID outbreak, the EU has embarked on a historically unprecedented recovery package, called the new ‘European Marshall plan’.  The Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) designated 728 Billion Euros in loans and grants to Member States between 2021-2026 to mitigate the pandemic’s economic and social impact and help Member States to move ‘towards more sustainable and resilient green and digital transitions’. The RRF is a performance-based funding with tight targets and extreme time pressure for planning, managing and completing projects. Spending quotas specify that 37% of all funds have to support climate projects and a minimum of 20% needs to fund digital initiatives.  No quotas are set for social projects (Bokhorts, 2022) and early evaluation seems to show that intersectoral and intersectional thinking, design, planning and project delivery is very rare; funded projects have strong sectoral focus and quick and large spends rarely tie in with ongoing comprehensive reforms.

The RRF is a very important milestone in the EU’s supranational governing ambitions. This vast investment could pave the way towards new EU fiscal capacity (Saraceno, 2021), new 3initiatives on supranational capacity to tax and spend and new incentives to schemes such as European unemployment benefit scheme or the European minimum income scheme. While the gap in public capital in Europe is evident, a key question will remain as to how to reconcile high debt and high investment need of Member States in pulling fiscal and state capacities upwards towards the supranational scale. This remains a key issue for the future of Social Europe and scepticism is in place. As Rainone and Pochet (2022) argues: “the instruments put in place in the recovery strategy reflect the limits of a normative and governance architecture that is still anchored to an incomplete vision of European integration: a vision that focuses on market and monetary integration but not on the creation of a fiscal, social and political union”. The jury is still out there on whether or not a market union is shifting towards a social union.

A third and related challenge centres around the political challenges of the prospect of a ‘fiscal, social and political union’. The EU has long been riddled by an ongoing tension between technical governance versus political legitimacy, trust, political fragmentation and solidarity. As Grabbe and Lehne (2019) argues “the EU’s traditional method of depoliticizing difficult issues and submitting them to long technocratic discussions is unlikely to deliver results”. Both domestic political volatility in Member States (Russack, 2021) as well as political conflicts between Member States have intensified, and the ‘North versus South’, the ‘East versus the West’, the ‘populist versus centrist’ politics all continued to be major fault lines in EU politics. The vaccination programme coordinated by the EU during the pandemic has shown very clearly the cracks of and the exits from collective EU agreements by populist governments.

Political dynamics in post-COVID Europe resemble European disintegration rather than integration more than ever before and this is not just the result of Brexit, but equally importantly internal political fights, political contestation and the mobilisation of anti-EU sentiments in many Member States. This political disintegration and disorder happen exactly at times when monetary and fiscal pressure intensify, when global public goods and public capital require more investment and when the balance between markets and states are shifting towards more state interventions (ref). This growing disjuncture will put an enormous pressure on EU governance in the coming years and its likely that political contestations, conflicts and fragmentation will have a more profound impact on technical governance than before.

Political disintegration also weakens the European social dimension, not just because of the right-wing populist threat to social and human rights, but also because it hinders the further democratisation of the politics of Social Europe. The pandemic has been a severe hit to the NGO sector and severely weakened voluntary organisations, other third sector organisations and collective spaces (Sassu and Vas, 2021). ‘Emergency’ governance and fast-tracked policy responses and funding schemes may well have weakened social dialogue, consultations and participatory governance.

I agree with commentators who argue that the only way forward is to strengthen the political dimension of EU integration by more democratisation, community building, and consensus building. The Recovery Fund has raised new conversations around redistributive claims and citizen participations, and new conversations are on the way around democratisation in terms of permanent participation, transparency, accountability through democratic panopticum (Nicolaïdis, 2021), universal European basic income scheme (Ash and Zimmermann, 2020), citizens assembly (Abels, et. al, 2022), and democratisation of economy (Laville, 2023).

Citizenship and critical human security are in a deep crisis in Europe. Inequalities, poverty, marginalisation, social isolation, discrimination, and wellbeing crisis, what Grogan (2022) calls the COVID bred ‘shadow’ pandemics, are all pointing to the urgent need to govern towards new possibilities, new conversations and a new language that places critical human security at the centre of its ambition.

[1] This draws on collaborative research funded by ESRC Grant Number ES/W010739/1.


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