The EU’s recovery package for COVID-19 centers around the concept of ‘resilience,’ whereby it is not only meant to help Member States recover, but also to become more able to withstand future shocks—thus the name, the “Recovery and Resilience Facility.” A few years ago, when this was first being talked about in the offices of trainers and consultants catering to EU officials—at least so far as I had noticed it—a co-worker responsible for overseeing contracts with certain organs of the European Commission told me that the term was no anodyne technicism: it referred to a society’s resilience against populism—which, in our context, meant anything to the right of the HR department.
Of course, the closer one gets to the source of policy, the less explicitly things are expressed, so I did not expect to ever find so direct a formulation in print. All the same, it is now worth digging into what is really intended by this conceptual guiding light of ‘resilience.’ Also prominent in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, it must be understood according to the theoretical model used by the EU, as articulated by the Joint Research Center, according to which a disturbance to a system can range from slight and medium—which can be absorbed and adapted to, respectively—to severe—in which case it requires that the system transforms itself. The COVID-19 pandemic is taken to be an example of the latter:
The COVID-19 shock is so extreme in its duration and intensity that it is simply impossible to address it through absorptive capacities or a simple adaptation of the system. Therefore, the crisis should become an opportunity to progress and “bounce forward” through … adaptation and transformation measures.” (Joint Research Center, Time for transformative resilience: the COVID-19 emergency)
This presents us with our first hurdle. If the magnitude of a disturbance determines how much a system alters itself, does it make sense to describe the system as resilient? Indeed, does it make sense to think of greater self-transformation as a sign of greater, rather than lesser, resilience? But perhaps this is reasonable; perhaps mere ‘adaptation’ ends up requiring too many ad hoc changes, patches here and there, to shore-up a leaky wall that is subject to mounting structural pressure. In such a case, we need to transform—that is, tear it down, and build a better wall from the bottom-up—in order to retain the integrity of our house.
Alas, this does not seem to be what the Commission has in mind. Rather than transforming the leaky wall into a better one, we are closer to replacing the wall in our living room with a fully furnished bar:
Transformations do not only include technical and technological changes, but also cultural changes, behavioral shifts and institutional reforms. They question values, change priorities, challenge beliefs, identities and stereotypes.” (Joint Research Center, Time for transformative resilience: the COVID-19 emergency)
Resilience to the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences turns out to thoroughly transcend economic questions around healthcare and supply chains. It must change culture and behavior; it must challenge beliefs and identities (perhaps these were the real virus all along…) Transformation, it seems, is not a means to retain, but to revolutionize.
We may confirm this suspicion by taking a look at the Commission’s prototype “Resilience Dashboard” and its annexes. Member States will be judged against their national Recovery and Resilience Plan, but the degree to which these plans (which are often surprisingly thin) are being achieved will likely require a tangible measurement of resilience. It may be that a finalized dashboard, or some version thereof, will be periodically updated and consulted in this regard, possibly even having an impact on the Commission’s decision to release more funds for those countries under stricter control. (There are Member States that will only receive a portion of their share of the recovery fund every six-months, according to their performance).
The Dashboard consists of four axes—the Socio-Economic, Green, Digital, and Geopolitical—each of which contains myriad sub-components, some more dubious than others. These axes were already defined in the 2020 Strategic Foresight Report, which describes “resilience as a new compass for EU policies” and proposes that “resilience dashboards…once fully developed…should be used for assessing the vulnerabilities and capacities of the EU and its Member States in each of the four dimensions.”
I will focus on the geopolitical axis, as this overlaps with the social and economic dimensions. It includes, for example, a country’s “net migration rate”, with a higher rate counting towards a higher resilience score. A related component is that of “People being resettled under AMIF” (the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund). The rationale for measuring this is that “well managed migration systems also encompass safe and lawful channels for the admission of people in need of protection in line with EU values.” Yet, when we turn to the Dashboard’s annexes, we find that the actual measurement consists of “the number of people that have been resettled through the fund as a share of the recipient country’s population.” The data collected here is not in line with the stated reason for its collection. We do not measure how “well managed” the migration system is, how “safe and lawful” the channels for admission of persons into a country are. Instead, bizarrely, we measure the number of people resettled through these channels “as a share of the recipient country’s population.” The sleight-of-hand is not a particularly subtle one.
Another questionable measurement is that of the total workforce in a Member State represented by employed non-EU citizens. The justification for believing that a higher share will correlate positively with resilience is that it indicates the greater “ability of a country to attract and integrate non-EU citizens” and “signals a dynamic market that mirrors an inclusive society”. In this case, the relationship to resilience is not strictly or exclusively that of cause to effect. A higher share of non-EU workers does not itself necessarily increase a country’s ability to “attract and integrate” more non-EU citizens; rather, it indicates that the country already had that ability. We will see why this is significant shortly.
Each sub-component of the Dashboard is linked to some ‘mega-trend’, some macro-development of which it is considered a part. In the case of the size of the non-EU workforce, the Dashboard cites the “increasing significance of migration (increasing demographic imbalances)” as its mega-trend (the same as for the net migration rate). That which contributes to resilience, then, is also a sign of “demographic imbalance.” Resilience would seem not to correspond to stability, but to instability.
Presumably, what is meant here is that a larger non-EU workforce is required to ameliorate a demographic imbalance—however, taking this indicator as a contributor to resilience ignores that a greater need for non-EU workers reveals that a demographic imbalance was already at play. We just saw that measuring this component is partly justified on the grounds that it indicates the presence of a feature of resilience (the ability to attract and integrate foreign citizens). If the authors of the Dashboard also see it as bespeaking pre-existent demographic imbalances (surely a source of instability), this calls into question their decision to ultimately treat it as though it were positively correlated with resilience. If there were no demographic imbalance to begin with, such that no sizeable non-EU workforce were brought in to ameliorate this, the result would absurdly count towards a lower resilience score. Further, if whatever caused this imbalance is upstream from the arrival of a non-EU workforce, the Dashboard succeeds only in shoring up a demographic decline whose causes might still be at play, and might affect the arriving population too, in its turn. If anything, these underlying causes, whatever they might be, are hidden by the falsely reassuring choice to display their consequences as somehow increasing overall resilience.
With respect to value chains and trade, we find that, apart from general “trade openness,” the Dashboard assumes resilience is increased by what are called ‘backward and forward participation’ in global value chains. Briefly, these refer to the percentage of a country’s total gross exports that are made with goods previously imported from abroad, that is foreign value-added as percentage of domestic exports, (backward participation), and the percentage of a country’s exports that are in turn used by other countries to make their exports (forward participation). The Dashboard assumes that these lead to a “higher capacity of economies to harness the benefits of global cooperation.” Successfully producing exports that make use of mainly local resources—because a country happens to be resource-rich and has developed an industry around that resource—would then, presumably, be tallied-up as somehow rendering the country less resilient and more vulnerable to economic shocks. Environmental sustainability is also relevant here, as the above appears to discourage local sourcing of resources.
One may argue that drawing on many imports and having many countries rely on our exports will cause our economy to be held up by a wide net of mutual interest—but, in that case, what we are actually concerned with are good trade relations and the benefits of diversification. Indeed, the Dashboard measures the concentration of value chain partners separately, whereas global value chain participation is counted towards higher resilience even as an isolated variable. It is unclear how having a high percentage of our exports reliant on foreign value-added, potentially from a limited number of countries or a fragile, over-extended supply chain, renders us more resilient. The opposite would seem to be true. Neither does the ability to make our exports without a greater need of foreign imports prevent us from diversifying these and selling them to a wide range of foreign buyers.
Perhaps the most manipulable, discretional sub-component, albeit one that cannot be unpacked as little substance is provided, is that of “Disinformation originating from abroad.” This is to be “determined through Expert responses to the question ‘How routinely do foreign governments and their agents use social media to disseminate misleading viewpoints or false information to influence domestic politics in this country?’” Who these experts are will likely make all the difference, as the idea of “fake news,” apart from its genuinely useful usages, often becomes a cover to treat opinions as objective or fictional depending on their conformity to certain presuppositions.
The above is by no means exhaustive, but it should serve to illustrate just how thin the (social-)scientific gloss on the guiding principle of the EU’s present recovery package really is. ‘Resilience’ is a highly-heterogenous amalgam of sub-indices without much conceptual cogency. In this respect, we may reasonably state the following,
- The term ‘Resilience’ is, in many respects, less descriptive of what is actually intended than ‘Transformation’;
- The Transformation in question goes well beyond the principal stated purpose of the recovery fund, namely ameliorating the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 and preparing for similar future events;
- This Transformation furthers long-standing policy trajectories, including increasing the non-EU migrant population of the EU.
By titling this piece “Recover, Resilience and Resistance,” I mean to suggest what might come of becoming aware of what resilience really means for Europe. But any resistance (or genuine resilience) must be civically engaged and political: no merely individual abstentions or expressions of conscience will accrue the critical mass or agility required to arrest or alter a project already underway.
To end on a positive note, there is much that is of value in the Dashboard, as well as in the 2020 Strategic Foresight Report, and we may certainly fathom that, with obvious alterations, it could be used to promote more objectively positive policy choices. As is often the case, the EU produces structures and frameworks that could, in theory, be repurposed according to the commitments of those ‘at the helm.’ The point is to reach the helm before the ship crashes.