Resilience has become a new way of promoting the value agenda, allowing the EU to maintain its position as a source of regulatory borrowing and mentor, especially for neighbours and underdeveloped countries, writes Valdai Club expert Tatiana Romanova.
The concept of resilience appeared in the discourse of the European Economic Community (the predecessor of the European Union) in the 1970s to describe internal development problems and the process of overcoming them (first of all, to ensure economic growth and sustainable development). In the 1990s, the concept was firmly rooted in the security sphere of the individual countries of the Western world, signalling an increasingly volatile world, the inability of the state to protect citizens from all dangers, the need for individuals to learn to live in the presence of dangers, and for society and the state to maintain basic functions, despite various ever-present challenges.
By the turn of the century, the concept was firmly embedded in the EU’s relations with developing countries. As a result, on the one hand, it became a priority to use the concept to substantiate the external actions of the European Union (stimulating resilience in partners). On the other hand, resilience in EU discourse has been associated with democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. The EU increasingly saw not only official structures as partners, but the civil societies of countries outside Europe as well. Brussels positioned itself as an example to follow in building resilience.
The 2016 Global Strategy has put the concept of resilience at the core of EU activity around the world (and not just in its dialogue with developing countries). At the same time, the EU has presented resilience as a compromise between its earlier liberal aspirations (the desire to promote its values in the world and transform it by its example) and a realistic understanding of the modern world. Experts, however, noted that resilience has become a new way of promoting the value agenda, allowing the EU to maintain its position as a source of regulatory borrowing and mentor, especially for neighbours and underdeveloped countries.
In its Global Strategy, the EU also focused on the challenges from which Brussels cannot isolate itself in a globalised world and to which it must be resilient (primarily terrorism, disinformation, cyber threats, and the stability of energy supplies). At the same time, the nature of interaction between the state and society was not resolved, i.e. what resources are optimal for life when threats present themselves. The polar options were the state’s concern for citizens, their isolation from these threats (especially disinformation) and the education of citizens, trust in them and the development of “life-building skills” in the presence of various dangers. The latter is more consistent with the theories of resilience, but has not been unambiguously accepted in the EU.
Thus, there were four aspects to the specificity of the discourse of the European Union on resilience in the lead-up to the pandemic: outward orientation, outlook towards third countries, normativity, and an emphasis on facing threats where the required allocation of resources for countering risks was uncertain (these reflect the essence of academic concepts of resilience).
How has the current pandemic changed the EU’s discourse on resilience?
First. The EU’s discourse has shifted from discussing external problems and the situation in countries outside the union to internal transformations. By April, the European Commission had already launched a roadmap for recovery called “Towards a more resilient, sustainable and fair Europe”. It is significant that the programme of financing the recovery of the EU economy through grants and loans, approved at the July meeting of the European Council, was named the Recovery and Resilience Facility. Member States will submit a national resilience-building programme to the European Commission. These documents will be evaluated by Brussels officials and will serve as the basis for the issuance of EU loans and grants. The term “resilience” also permeates the programme of the troika of Presidents of the Council of the European Union, prepared for the period from July 2020 to the end of 2021.
Based on these and other documents, we can say that the EU recognises the impossibility of eliminating challenges similar to pandemics, and seeks to build a system (primarily at the level of member states, but with the help of EU resources) that would allow it to develop in the context of similar crises. The success of each member state will also mean that this integration project will continue, and the internal borders of the EU will remain open. Increased overall funding is becoming a convenient tool for transformation. Here we can talk about the reproduction within the EU of a practice, which in previous years the EU applied to its external partners. Two issues are thematically emphasised. The first one – traditional for the discourse on resilience, which developed before the pandemic – is the environmental friendliness of energy. The so-called green policy of the European Union (switching to renewable sources, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing energy efficiency) should serve as the basis of the programme to overcome the crisis.
Another issue is a new one: increasing the resilience of health systems that have turned out to be the weak link in the response to the crisis. The very modest interest of the EU in international topics is also indicative, including in neighbouring countries.
Second. A logical consequence of the reorientation of the EU’s discourse on resilience to domestic policy meant a decrease in the normative component in it: after all, the EU as a whole, according to the prevailing understanding, should not build a system of guarantees of democracy and human rights, but only strengthen them. At the same time, it is noteworthy that with the approval of the European Council of the Recovery and Resilience Facility, as well as the planning of the EU budget for the medium term, a discussion about values was still on the agenda. The reason was the text introduced by the Commission, which (in accordance with the constituent documents) makes it possible to stop the financing of countries that violate the values of the EU. The main troublemakers of the “value tranquillity” within the association remain Poland and Hungary; their leaders blocked the relevant aspects of the agreements at the summit in July. As a result, a traditional EU compromise was reached, requiring further interpretation: references to EU values were retained, with the ability of the EU Council to decide on sanctions by a qualified majority, and the right of the European Council to discuss the introduction of these restrictions (including, according to Warsaw and Budapest, to approve them unanimously, i.e. give all countries the right to veto the relevant decisions). The aforementioned programme of the troika of Presidents of the Council also contains very modest references to values when defining an action plan to increase the EU’s resilience.
Third. In the discourse of the European Union, the link between resilience and external threats has become stronger. At the same time, terrorism and the energy supply have faded into the background, and disinformation and threats in the cyber environment have come to the fore. Russia in the discourse of the European Union has retained its (leading) position as the main source of these threats, but the topic of the dangers emanating from China has also become more active. The need to ensure the EU’s resilience in relation to disinformation and cybersecurity was clearly expressed in the European Council’s statement last March, and in the Communique from the European Commission last June, as well as in the programme of the troika of Presidents of the Council of Ministers.
Moreover, the Accounts Chamber has assessed the effectiveness of the EU’s actions in the field of disinformation as an important aspect of ensuring the EU’s resilience. Disinformation manifests itself in the context of how to more effectively combat the pandemic with medical means, and trust in the official authorities in general. The topic of cyber-threat turned out to be in demand due to the increased importance of telecommunication structures in politics and economics, especially given the growing importance of remote forms of interaction. But there were also accusations of attempts to steal the scientific results on vaccines from the EU.
Fourth, the EU focuses both on the development of citizens and public resources, as well as on official structures becoming more active. The latter were key during the course of the pandemic, but the EU discourse is now shifting in favour of giving more responsibility to citizens and public structures. In other words, the question of the resources of resilience remains open.
Finally, the term “resilience” has been voiced in recent weeks in the context of the EU’s intention to ensure greater independence in the world arena. This is not directly related to the pandemic. The impetus was the restrictive new US measures against Nord Stream 2 and the desire to protect EU companies from secondary US sanctions. But from the point of view of the discourse on resilience, this is confirmed by the increasingly active use of this concept in relation to the integration association, and not to countries outside the Union, and the emphasis is on threats. Actions in this direction, if successful, can restore the effectiveness of the most powerful instrument of the EU’s external action, its trade policy and economic ties. In recent years, their effectiveness has been reduced by the activity of the United States in the imposition of sanctions and its legislation, and the practice of applying secondary sanctions against all companies throughout the world.
Thus, the pandemic has contributed to a significant transformation of the EU’s discourse on resilience.
What significance can this have for Russia? First, the priority of internal problems also means the preservation of the deplorable state of relations between Moscow and Brussels. The appetite for drastic changes in foreign policy in Brussels was limited, even before, and has now almost disappeared. At the same time, the emphasis on the Green Deal as the basis for enhancing the EU’s resilience threatens the closeness of cooperation between Russia and the EU in the energy sector: the fate of this interaction depends on whether gas finds a place in the process of the decarbonisation of the EU economy.
Second, the decline in normative rhetoric due to the transformation of the discourse on resilience does not mean that these values should be abandoned in the context of external relations.
Third, maintaining an emphasis on the threats to the EU's resilience and perceptions of Russia as one of their sources is also negative, not only for official contacts, but also for the dialogue among civic groups, in which Brussels has seen an opportunity to compensate for stingy contacts with the Russian state officials. The general mistrust of Russia extends to the effectiveness of its fight against the pandemic, as it blocked the opening of its borders. And this, in turn, continues the trend of a catastrophic decline in the mutual socialisation of partners. Well, the vast benefits from strengthening the EU’s resilience in terms of countering secondary US sanctions can hardly be expected, except the completion of the long-suffering Nord Stream 2.