Tough questions about the EU’s role in the pandemic response are coming soon – if they are not already here. The problem is we have few criteria against which to assess the EU’s performance during crises. Mark Rhinard lays out some options.

One truism of any crisis is the swift onset of the blame game. Even before the initial shock ends, the fingers of government officials, pundits and commentators begin pointing in different directions. Claims are thrown about as to what went wrong and who is responsible. At the moment, the amount of finger-pointing is rather subdued. Soon enough, though, the accusations will start flying.

Blame games are inevitable because crises, by definition, are difficult to manage. We have few examples of perfectly managed crises. It really is an ‘impossible job’ for governments, as evidenced by efforts to judge crisis performance at national levels. Crisis management is even harder for supranational authorities like the European Union. The EU plays a role in crisis management – especially in response to cross-border and symmetric shocks like a pandemic – but that role constantly evolves. And as we all know, the EU is a strange political animal: both a platform and an actor, with some state-like features but others more akin to an international organisation. This makes the search for performance criteria more challenging and explains why the blame games involving Brussels are usually so brutal.

Before the finger-pointing starts, then, it is worth asking what criteria should be applied to the EU’s performance in the Covid-19 pandemic. Given the unique nature of the EU political system, the combined insights from the literatures on crisis management, international organisations’ performance, and EU institutional politics can be used for leverage. The discussion below sets out three criteria – and offers some early but incomplete assessments.

We should first look at the crisis tools the EU already has in place. Are they functioning as planned? Are they being used? This criterion stems from studies on the performance of international organisations, generally, which argue that efficient internal functioning is a prerequisite for effectiveness.

For the EU, crisis tools are geared at providing ‘surge support’ for overwhelmed member states as well as better situation awareness. One tool is the Early Warning and Response System (EWRS), which links national capitals to help keep them abreast of developments. Through that system, organisations such as the ECDC (the EU disease control facility) publish daily briefings on what dangers currently exist and which member states have taken what decisions. Earlier research suggests that national authorities increasingly turn to these briefs rather than construct their own. And anecdotal evidence during the Covid-19 pandemic suggests these have become a ‘go to’ resource.

The ECDC’s Emergency Operations Centre, Credit: © European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control

Another tool is the Civil Protection Mechanism, used by the European Commission to mobilise crisis resources across Europe. Early indications show the mechanism has been triggered on multiple occasions, including the return of citizens abroad; although the well-publicised request from Italy for protective gear went unanswered by fellow member states (a long-standing request by the Commission is the creation of ‘own resources’ to help stockpile gear).

A third tool is the Council Secretariat-General’s Integrated Political Crisis Response (ICPR) platform, which brings member states together at the diplomatic level and shares situation information. This cross-sectoral tool should help with situation awareness beyond the health sector to identify other risks and potential responses. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of the ICPR, but early reports suggest the platform is at least up-and-running.

A second way to judge the EU’s performance during Covid-19 concerns its ability to anticipate – and react to – the cascading effects of the crisis. Can it identify potential secondary effects and mobilise relevant resources? This criterion comes from the literature on crisis decision-making, which shows how often governments, buried by information and facing deep uncertainty, often fail to think several steps ahead. Counter-intuitively, at least in principle, this problem may be less acute for the EU. The EU studies literature suggests that vague mandates and the ever-present need for the EU to prove itself may have hidden benefits: a heightened capacity for anticipating other roles.

In the case of the EU, the economic impact of the pandemic requires no imagination: it is already becoming apparent. National ‘shelter in place’ rules are leading to shuttered businesses and rising unemployment. It is interesting to note here that the EU quickly relaxed state aid restrictions so that national governments could pump money into society. Eurozone leaders, too, loosened debt limits written into the Stability and Growth Pact and are even considering the idea of jointly backed ‘corona-bonds’ for nations to draw on.

But what about less obvious effects of the current crisis? The swift closing of borders caught the EU off-guard, but mitigation steps are underway: ‘green lanes’ for essential traffic, for example, while individuals and businesses impacted by border closures are getting special attention from EU regulators. Social fragmentation is another risk as the steps taken to combat the spread of the virus deepen their bite in local communities. Here, the EU’s powers are limited, but one step underway is a redirection of European structural funds towards projects that improve social cohesion. These are just a few – and perhaps overly optimistic – indicators of the EU’s ability to think broadly in times of crisis.

A third criteria for judging the EU’s performance during crises is more symbolic but no less vital. It concerns the extent to which EU leaders project a shared image of competence and community. As the crisis management literature tells us, this ‘meaning making’ is about ‘formulating and communicating a convincing and enabling narrative that explains what has happened and what is being done to minimize the consequences of the crisis’. For the EU the challenge is particularly difficult, since 28 national leaders vie with multiple heads of EU institutions to communicate with the public. Yet meaning making is not about press releases and information campaigns. It’s about levelling with the public, countering rumours, and being present.

Projecting an image of competence does not require perfect performance in all stages of crisis, but it does require clarity and honesty in the steps being taken – and an acknowledgment of trade-offs in the context of continuing uncertainty. Nor does projecting community require all leaders to speak on the same stage, in lockstep. It involves a broadly acknowledged picture of what is at stake, and what values are worth protecting even if the crisis continues to spread. To be sure, this is the toughest of the three performance criteria outlined here, and the EU has little control over this one. But it can help to coordinate its message, internally, as the Commission President has done with daily videos of steps being taken and daily coordination sessions. And the EU institutions can work with member states to build and frame the semblance of common vision, externally.

A last point bears mentioning. The EU’s performance – when we speak of the EU institutions – is only partly under its own control. Regardless of the level of supranational competence, those competences can be exercised effectively only when the member states back them up. Any assessment of the EU’s crisis performance, therefore, must include the combined actions of member states and the EU institutions alike. Future finger-pointers would do well to consider that point.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the author

Mark Rhinard – Stockholm University
Mark Rhinard is Professor of International Relations at Stockholm University. He is a member of the ‘BuildERS’ EU Horizon 2020 project and the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency’s ‘Creeping Crisis’ project.

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