Building European Resilience and Capacity to Act
Containing twelve scenarios for the world in 2030, this report offers insights into how the EU can maintain and build up its capacity to act in the face of the major disruptive changes that are likely to come over this decade. It is being released in the run-up to German elections in September 2021 that will serve as a kind of referendum on ten years of government-heavy crisis management.
You can download the updated German version of the complete report here.
#Digital Technologies Story Line
#Trade and Geo-Economics Story Line
#Emerging Security Threats Story Line
#Migration Story Line
Introductory chapter: Seeing Europe’s Future from 2021
Note: Download the full report with the twelve scenarios here (PDF, 3MB).
We present three scenarios for each of four global phenomena that we have chosen for their potential to change European society within a single generation. These are fields that will structure international affairs and can be used by states and nations to transform one another:
- New digital technologies
- Emerging security threats such as climate change
- Geo-economics (trade and system competition)
- Large-scale migration
The scenarios are in large part the product of four foresight workshops. For the purpose of this booklet, we have simplified them by focusing on just two of their variables (the originals were built on five or six). We then worked them into cohesive two-step narratives together with our in-house experts before picturing how the European Union will fare in each – and what kind of attributes the EU needs to build up if it is to sustain its capacity to act.
“Capacity to Act”: Signposts for How Well the EU Will Navigate Future Crises
What do we mean by Europe’s “capacity to act”? The EU is a market power – a regulatory power – and its capacity to act at home and abroad is primarily related to its economic and standard-setting prowess. Consequently, we carried out the foresight exercise to generate signposts for us to analyze how well EU policymaking performs under strain and assess whether European regulators are ready for the future. Are Europe’s rule-makers on a good path in these four fields, and are they capable of changing direction where necessary and nimbly making new investments and setting new standards? We will chart the EU’s real-world progress in follow-up monitoring studies – one for each of the four fields – but this scenario booklet is meant to stand on its own. It offers readers – and voters – a way to judge the strategic approach of EU policy for themselves.
Each of the four main chapters imagines how the world might look in 2030. Each one imagines three different futures in the respective field of tech, security, geo-economics, and migration, as well as the paths that the EU might take to navigate them: a status quo scenario, best-case scenario, and worst-case scenario. Each time, the “status quo scenario” represents the European Union’s current path as we understand it and examines the implications of this current path for future resilience. The two alternate scenarios are judged “best” or “worst” not by the gravity of the disasters or rosiness of the opportunities Europeans face along the way, but by the outcome for the EU. Together, they tell us something about which characteristics the EU must develop to not only act in a crisis but also harness it. We draw lessons for policy after each scenario.
Linear Thinking: How Brussels Stands in Its Own Way When It Comes to Nimble Policymaking
The exercise confirmed the importance of nimble policymaking and regulation by the EU if it is to withstand and harness disruptive crises. In those scenarios where the EU achieved this – the best-case scenarios – then because it had invested in such basics as European cohesion and international relationship-building. This allowed it to change course and adapt. Investments in Europe’s internal cohesion gave it the sufficient political flexibility to make new rules when the situation changed. In the tech chapter, for example, an early pension fund reform allowed companies to invest in overcoming Europe’s digital divide, a move that paid dividends when crisis hit. International relationship-building allowed the EU to export its models during a global crisis or respond well to foreign initiatives. In the best-case geo-economics scenario, for instance, the EU had made open-ended investments in the resilience and connectivity of South Asian states, meaning that these countries did not behave defensively when catastrophe came.
The status quo and worst-case scenarios show, by contrast, just how often the EU stands in its own way and prevents itself from a nimble response. In the face of disruption, the EU sticks to old linear assumptions and projections. We were able to show this because each of the four main chapters in this booklet are built around two variables that are usually held in a simple cause-effect relationship by Brussels policymakers. Yet we generated three fundamentally different combinations of each. This showed how a disruption can alter settled relationships and challenge consensus positions. The best-case scenarios all occurred when policymakers flipped old assumptions on their head and changed paths. But in the status quo outcomes the EU ignored the change and stuck with existing assumptions; and in the worst-case scenarios it actively reinforced its old path by backing it up with geopolitical muscle. The first basic lesson is that the EU must look upon disruptions as a means to change policy course.
The Scenarios challenge today’s assumptions and illustrate that:
- It is possible for the EU to maintain and spread its democratic values without first resorting to heavy market regulation in the tech domain;
- It is possible for the EU to be a leader in resolving the new drivers of conflict like climate change without resorting primarily to ambitious unilateral commitments;
- It is possible for the EU to secure access to new resources and technologies without focusing primarily on keeping up with the United States and China; and
- It is possible for the EU to attract the kinds of international labor it desires without attracting disproportionate levels of irregular migration from Africa.
The Pursuit of European Autonomy: A Common Theme in the Worst-Case Scenarios
The second basic lesson is that the EU should use disruptions to break policy silos. The EU does indeed aspire to respond to crisis in this iconoclastic style. The European Commission’s 2020 report Charting the Course Towards a More Resilient Europe is an upbeat manifesto for bouncing back from crisis better – for breaking silos, combining competencies and powers in new ways, and coming back more democratically, equitably, and sustainably. But the EU’s aspirations do not seem to match the current realities of EU policy decisions. With its mantra to “never waste a crisis,” the EU usually uses disruption to deepen an existing project rather than rethink or even dismantle it. This typically involves “completing” existing integration endeavors such as the digital single market, eurozone, or Schengen. The four status quo scenarios by definition involved this kind of continuity; it is notable that, in all four, things ended negatively for the EU.
As such, the scenarios offer a corrective to the fashionable idea of achieving autonomy and, in particular, the EU’s embrace of the “Brussels Effect.” The Brussels Effect is the EU’s ambition to live by its own rules in a hostile international environment – to unilaterally regulate globalization.]In the current defensive version that characterizes the status quo scenarios, it involves the EU “completing” integration projects, closing off its various internal markets and deepening the relevant internal rules. The EU puts up protections not just because it needs to but because it believes this gives it leverage in a disruptive world. It tries to leverage access to Europe’s consumers and oblige foreign countries and businesses to take on its regulations. In our scenarios, when the EU behaved in this way, it only cut Europe’s internal market off from global supplies of natural and human resources and stymied European innovation under red tape. It also politicized protective EU measures such as investment screening or visa controls, which are necessary on their own merits. In short, it made the EU vulnerable to crisis.
The Instrumental Use of Strategic Foresight: Why the EU Asks the Wrong Questions
The third lesson derives from the notable fact that the best-case scenarios in all four chapters began with a major crisis or even catastrophe, but the worst-case scenarios did not. This was counterintuitive: catastrophes are surely something for worst-case worlds. And yet, it was the outcomes we were judging. And the ability to absorb catastrophe and harness it in the best cases derived from the fact that the EU had avoided relying too heavily on threat analyses and strong projections. This left it unprepared for the particular crisis that hit – but adaptable. In the worst-case scenarios, by contrast, we imagined the EU successfully predicted the next big crisis and protected itself against it. But its response lacked flexibility and improvisation. Moreover, it had also “predicted” vast other crises and invested in protective defenses to these as well, leaving its resources exhausted. It tended to push ahead with its chosen course in the face of resistance at home and abroad using heavy-handed power-political tools.
This provided us with lessons about how to use strategic foresight in the real world. The status quo scenarios illustrated that the EU is relying too much on horizon-scanning and trend analysis and too little on more speculative forms of foresight. It is trying to use threat analyses and linear projections to anticipate unpredictable future disruptions. There is even a danger that the EU will start instrumentalizing foresight in order to justify a pre-cooked policy course such as “autonomy.” Already there are signs that the EU is using threat analyses to show how globalization is going wrong and justify closing off EU markets – generating unilateral European rules on artificial intelligence, climate change, and migration and trying to impose them on others. The worst-case scenarios show that such policies are liable to backfire and create precisely the hostile geopolitical situations they were meant to prevent. This booklet documents our aim to deploy foresight in more speculative and open-ended ways.
Breaking Both Silos and Policy Paths: Toward A Different Kind of European Market Power
In sum, the scenarios suggest that a resilient EU is one that avoids thinking in silos and trajectories and makes careful but open-ended commitments to integration across borders and fields. It is notable, for instance, just how much the strategic challenges of tech, geo-economics, climate, and migration cut across all the chapters and not only those dedicated to each one. The masterful EU of the best-case scenarios is one that breaks silos and combines its digital, capital, defense, and labor markets in pursuit of growth, innovation, and democratic values. Whereas the pursuit of the Brussels Effect tends to envision the EU using each crisis to ratchet an individual market project to completion – the digital single market, the defense market, and so on – the more successful approach would see the EU mixing and matching across its market competencies to maintain access to innovations, capital, state backing, and the brightest minds.
That is the recipe for a more compelling form of European power and leverage.
The Story Lines in Our Four Fields
This report was written in the framework of DGAP’s “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik,” a project funded by Stiftung Mercator that reﬂects on the capacity to act in German and European foreign policy. To assess whether the EU is on the right course for 2030, we looked at four ﬁelds: technology, geo-economics, security, and migration. By envisioning three scenarios for 2030 in each one – a status quo, worst-case, and best-case scenario – we aim to ensure the EU is properly aware of the implications of continuing its current trajectory, is prepared for the worst, and understands how to achieve the best. While our group of experts has created scenarios based on multiple dynamics for us to use as a benchmark to monitor the EU’s progress over the next decade, we have cherry-picked a single one for this booklet and pulled out two of its key variables. The status quo, worst-case, and best-case scenarios outlined here each combine these variables in different ways and challenge the usually assumed cause-effect relationship between them, thereby highlighting new policy options that break old path dependencies in Brussels and Berlin.
Taken together, we note that the status quo and worst-case scenarios are not so different in all four chapters. Both tend to envision the EU trying to leverage its internal market in a bid to unilaterally inﬂuence and regulate globalization. If the worst-case scenarios are worse, then because, in them, the EU tends to behave in a more assertive ideological manner and be more mistrustful of outside powers. In the best-case scenarios, ironically, it is often a major crisis or disaster that catalyzes a positive change of path. It is notable that, whereas in the status quo and worst cases the EU has tried to predict crises and protect itself against them, in the best cases it has tended to invest in relations and generic capabilities that help it respond to whatever comes. Successful resilience is – in large part – about attitude.
- Digital Technologies Story Line
For the purposes of this booklet, we took two variables from this scenario – the EU’s regulatory power and the use of new technologies for power political competition – and ran them through different iterations. The overall finding is that the EU is too quick to regulate in its bid to protect its democratic values. Only in the best-case scenario does it learn that assertive regulation comes at the cost of innovation, and innovation is what it needs to build the European market, encourage Europeans to be early adopters, and develop technologies that are snapped up abroad – in short, to use disruptive new technologies to sustain and spread its values.
In the status quo scenario, the EU initially does well in regulating for data protection and the use of artificial intelligence. Its standards are taken up worldwide as large multinational tech firms seek the kind of regulatory size and stability that the EU offers. But policymakers in Brussels get carried away by this early success, and rifts appear with the United States about which of them is the global standard-bearer for democratic values. By 2030, Europe’s tech economy and level of innovation fade, and the EU finds itself on the sidelines. It is forced to watch as the United States and China regulate things together.
In the worst-case scenario, the EU focuses on regulating communication technologies, which are vital for democracy and the European public sphere. It, thus, seeks to protect itself from hostile disinformation campaigns and, in turn, sustain and spread its values. But for ideological reasons it invests in a huge satellite internet project to create information autonomy. This investment diverts state support away from smaller firms and bottom-up innovation. As the European economy sinks and loses its value as an integrated regulatory space, the Chinese do launch a massive disinformation campaign.
In the best-case scenario, the EU invests in projects that are either in tune with Europeans’ priorities or capture their imagination – for example, it supports quantum technology, the digital euro, and a Mars exploration program. Consequently, these initiatives help smaller European firms to innovate, and they build Europeans’ trust in technology, even as natural disasters lead to global tech outages. The EU market grows as European technology is adopted first at home and then abroad. Having thus addressed the digital divide inside Europe, the EU is able to engage in nimble and sympathetic norm-setting.
- Trade and Geo-Economics Story Line
The two variables we selected here were the quality of relations between the United States and China and the EU’s access to resources and technology. The overall finding is that the EU should not focus primarily on competing with the United States and China – or even trying to force them to cooperate. Both US-Chinese cooperation and competition lead to the EU being cut out of the global market, restricting its access to resources and technological breakthroughs. The priority should rather be to create issue-specific alliances that diffuse influence and power away from the “G2.”
In the status quo scenario, competition between the United States and China grows, and multilateral organizations like the WTO cease to work properly. Beijing and Washington drive up global innovation and resource access, but they do so by creating two competing blocs that decouple and seek to close the other out. The EU tries to keep up but almost inevitably fails to compete with China and the United States. The EU is divided between the two of them – while Brussels tries to align with the United States on regulatory terms, poorer member states align with China for cost reasons.
In the worst-case scenario, China and the United States cooperate and begin to bilaterally establish rules on access to resources and technologies. Cooperation occurs because China has turned into the predominant economic superpower and the United States has retreated. China is particularly active in imposing “cooperation agreements” on other countries, having sponsored their regional bodies. The EU, as a result, finds itself in a cooperative international order structured around the United States and China but finds its access to disruptive new technologies strictly limited by a Beijing that fears triggering instability.
In the best-case scenario, the EU does not focus on competing or cooperating with the United States and China. Instead, it finds itself caught up with India, which has been hit by disaster and finds itself committing to multilateral organizations like the World Trade Organization whose reform it has long blocked. The EU sees a way to reinvigorate its own international reform agenda. It helps set up issue-specific international networks of governments, businesses, experts, and citizens around resources and technologies – platforms in which smaller states, including its own members, have some influence.
- Emerging Security Threats Story Line
The two variables we took in this field were climate change and the quality of security cooperation. The finding here is that investing in security cooperation is one key to successful global climate adaptation, allowing for the exchange of technologies as well as permitting cooperation in domains like space. The EU’s assumption was the reverse: that the progressive breakdown in international security cooperation is a result of climate stress, the logical response to which is to strengthen its unilateral commitment to climate targets. In fact, this unilateral attempt to regulate global climate targets and deal with conflict drivers is self-defeating.
In the status quo scenario, global security cooperation becomes sclerotic due to a lack of investment from the United States and its allies. Consequently, the incidence of conflict rises. In this difficult landscape, the EU invests in high unilateral climate commitments. This does indeed protect it from violence, but only because the main form of violence is an eco-extremism spurred by hostility at the lack of international ambition and cooperation. Although the EU is initially spared this thanks to its high unilateral standards, the lack of security cooperation allows this violence to spill into Europe.
In the worst-case scenario, global security cooperation breaks down and is replaced worldwide by the emergence of regional security orders. The EU embraces this shift, positioning itself as a leader in regional governance. It offers its neighbors generous access to its Green Deal for taking on its standards. But the breakdown of global security cooperation leads to highly risky regional behavior, not least when it comes to climate engineering. As the EU tries to keep its regional order together, it lifts conditionality to access its green funds, leading to corruption and leaving Eastern Europe open to conflict.
In the best-case scenario, global security cooperation all but collapses – leaving states badly exposed when a series of climate catastrophes roll across the Pacific, hitting both China and the United States. The pair reinvest in trust-building, which permits climate-related cooperation across all domains: space, maritime, land, airspace, and cyber. This cautious rapprochement between the United States and China unlocks cooperation between Western countries and emerging powers. The EU is able to take advantage of these shifts because it has been investing in security cooperation itself.
- Migration Story Line
The two variables we took here were the EU’s policies to compete for global migrants and the volume of irregular migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Our finding is that the EU’s fears are self-fulfilling. It believes that every time it opens up and competes with the world’s other large labor markets for migrants, it will attract a disproportionate influx of irregular migration from Africa. Gradually, the EU learns that Africa itself is capable of producing competitive labor markets that retain labor. It is European policies to buffer against irregular migration from Africa that disrupt these markets and give rise to large volumes of irregular migration.
In the status quo scenario, the EU must make its labor market attractive for transactional gain. China has started making deals with elites worldwide, offering access to Chinese universities and jobs in return for access to natural resources. Forced into competing, the EU is obliged to reduce any political conditionality it might have imposed on its African partners – after all, China does not impose political conditions there. The human rights and democratic situation in Africa subsequently deteriorates. The EU’s efforts to make its labor market more attractive than China’s while closing itself off to its near abroad lead to a huge wave of migrants from East and West Africa.
In the worst-case scenario, the EU finds itself again competing with Asian labor markets – this time because migration and regional free movement have become tools of geopolitical alliance building and geo-economic competition. The EU positions itself as a civilizational zone and consequently hardens its border to North Africa. But North African states like Morocco exploit the way Europe is closing itself off and reach out to their own southern neighbors, using migration diplomacy to tip the balance of power in West and East Africa. Soon, Morocco is overwhelmed by the strains of handling migration in this way. Another wave of migration from sub-Saharan Africa through North Africa to Europe results.
In the best-case scenario, China’s population ages and shrinks, and its economy dips, leading it to withdraw investment and “security advisors” from spots like East Africa. As conflict in Africa grows, the EU fears its own relative attractiveness and starts offering African elites access to the European labor market in return for holding back migrants. But the Ethiopian government explains that Europe is not, in fact, an attractive destination. Instead, Addis Ababa would prefer to receive support to build up the East African labor market. Having proved it can retain local labor, it asks for further support from the EU to pressure other regional labor markets like the Gulf, demanding they treat migrant workers better. As a result, Europe becomes competitive but faces no influx.
COVID-19 is yet another development that demonstrates the EU’s weak ability to withstand crisis. The pandemic revealed Europe’s heavy reliance on a global governance system that is no longer fit for purpose; it showed the limits of the EU’s economic power, exposing weak links and critical dependencies in supply chains; and it made clear that disinformation is impacting its political decision-making. It also illustrated the EU’s inability to harness and use disruptions. While the pandemic has catalyzed a whole set of unexpected outcomes – events that are high impact, highly improbable, and explicable only in retrospect – the EU has remained stuck in a familiar path and set of long-term goals, trapped in thinking that is linear and siloed. Really, it ought to be better at this by now. But when a system of governance that was considered futuristic as recently as the 1990s is forced into reactive mode, it looks vulnerable and unwieldy.
The pandemic had not been properly anticipated in Europe: warned of – yes, many times – but not actively prepared for. Although some contingency planning existed for the risk of such a health crisis – the German White Book on Security Policy considered pandemics one of ten key challenges to German security – little action had been taken. The UK is usually singled out for missing an open goal here. Despite its Operation Cygnus, a 2016 exercise on a “Swan Flu” pandemic, it failed to apply the 20 lessons that resulted. Interested Asian states, by contrast, noted the exercise and did. Singapore, for example, duly rode out the COVID-19 pandemic thanks, in part, to the insights it had borrowed from Cygnus. But Singapore had also had recent experience with avian flu and was looking to hone its system while the UK faced multiple possible threats all vying for attention and invested a little in each.
Such episodes thus raise three important questions, which we address here:
- How can such overwhelming crises be anticipated?
- How can resilience toward this type of crisis be enhanced?
- What is the right relationship between anticipation and resilience?
These questions are relevant because we can quite easily predict the big drivers of global change: breakthroughs in digital technologies, economic shifts, climate change, and demographic trends. And governments can, in turn, put strategic planning measures, such as top-down government initiatives and targets, in place. But, as we have seen, the effects of these global changes are often highly unpredictable. It is bottom-up resilience that is often most useful in such situations – with past open-ended investments in societal cohesion and international partnership paying off. In our assessment, it was the failure to build up domestic cohesion and international relationships and not the failure to implement the results of the Cygnus exercise that was really missing in Boris Johnson’s UK. Consequently, Britain’s loss of bounce provides the real lesson that Europeans must learn for the future.
From COVID-19 to 2030: Europe’s Path to the Future
Last year, many organizations looked resolutely forward, predicting the big challenges of the future and setting themselves new targets and strategies. The year 2030 served as a target date for processes such as the UN’s Agenda 2030 and NATO’s Reflection Process. NATO, for example, expressed the will to strengthen its political profile and adapt to the new geopolitical environment by 2030. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put it: “As the world changes, NATO will continue to change.” That strategists in their corner offices in HQs would use the date 2020 as an excuse and spur to look forward a decade to 2030 was perhaps the only really predictable thing about the last year. The COVID-19 crisis – a full-on crisis of post-1990s globalization – only reinforced the sense that 2020 was a year that would define our future course, forcing us to take a step back and think about how our future can play out.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen likewise placed a new focus on strategic foresight by putting one of her vice presidents in charge of mainstreaming it across the Commission’s services. But these EU exercises either repeated common assumptions or struggled to challenge them. The trouble was that the exercises could not counteract the implicit understanding that certain domestic and international structures and drivers are given. This is a common feature of risk analysis and capability planning – to take risk factors as immovable constants, feeding into a bleak, negative, and ultimately defensive vision of the future that is all too common among policymakers in Europe. Such views tend to project an EU increasingly alone within a hostile global environment – an EU that must come together by existential necessity rather than free choice.
This tendency for linear thinking is particularly prevalent in Germany, a country known for its status quo approach to global affairs. In the very near future, of course, the German status quo will be disrupted. Not only is Chancellor Angela Merkel set to step down in September 2021 after 16 years in office, but recent polling suggests that the long-ruling “grand coalition” of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats is also set to disappear. This sweeping change at the heart of Europe, coming just ahead of a 2022 French presidential election, can be a unique opportunity to set the EU on a new path. And yet, in Berlin, Paris, and Commission HQ, policymakers seem to be most focused on making progress for the EU in the preexisting Franco-German agendas – deepening the euro area and Schengen as well as, thanks to current US attention, trade and, above all, the digital market.
Insofar as a strategic agenda has emerged in Berlin and Paris, then around the ideas of “European autonomy” and a “geopolitical EU.” Such an agenda melds the French desire for the EU to carve an autonomous path in the world and put up protective barriers around itself with a German commitment to the international rules-based order and deepening EU integration. Its current iteration involves the EU closing off old market integration projects from the outside world and deepening their regulation to then use market access and other geopolitical levers to spread these regulations to other countries. This agenda claims to reverse the errors the EU made in the 1990s when Europe supposedly embraced the “end of history” and global market integration. But it employs precisely the kind of deterministic linear thinking that it purports to be correcting – this time, as “the return of history” and “globalization gone wrong” – to persuade Europeans that they must close themselves off and press through their priorities autonomously.
The EU’s Current Negative Trajectory
It has to be acknowledged that, looking purely at projections and trajectories, things do indeed look bad for the EU, especially when one thinks back to the hopeful years of the 1990s. Back then, a “free and whole” and “postmodern” Europe served as a model for the future. Today, its trajectory in four key fields looks bleaker, and its futures exercises tend to inform big top-down course corrections or efforts to protect the EU from a hostile world:
The tech trajectory: European companies currently make up less than 4 percent of market capitalization in the world’s 70 largest digital companies – with companies from the United States and China representing 73 percent and 18 percent, respectively. In other areas, EU providers are barely even present. For example, none of the 8 largest cloud service providers are European while 71 percent are from the US. Lacking a start-up culture and ready well of capital and squeezed between the United States and China, the EU’s tech market seems destined to dwindle.
The geo-economics trajectory: The EU’s dependence on others for critical resources is growing – for example, when it comes to importing critical resources from non-EU countries. Europe currently imports 78 percent of its lithium from Chile and almost 100 percent of rare earths from China. Given trends in sectors such as engineering and digital technology, the EU will need even more. According to a European Commission forecast, the EU would need 18 times the amount of lithium it currently disposes of by 2030 if demand keeps soaring.
The security trajectory: Sixty percent of the countries most vulnerable to climate change are already affected by armed conflict. And a changing climate exponentially exacerbates conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross foresees that 200 million people will be in need of humanitarian assistance in 2050, partly due to ecological effects. For example, the impact of climate change will be felt in a decline in human security in the EU’s neighborhood. Europe itself will see more frequent and intense natural hazards – for example, with extreme heat waves to occur once in two years from 2050 onward.
The migration trajectory: The “laws” of demography and market “push and pull” look bleak. One hundred years ago, when Europe still enjoyed a degree of global ascendancy, its demography accounted for 20 percent of the world’s population. By 2030, it will be around 8.5 percent. But, judged in raw numbers, Europe is the most attractive destination for global migrants, drawing in nearly one third of them, particularly those from nearby unstable countries. The EU looks set to experience an increase of between 21 and 44 percent in immigration compared to the previous decade, much of it irregular.
Ways in which Big Disruptions Allow Us to Change Trajectories
In short, by most measures, conflict is set to increase, climate impacts to become heavier, innovation in Europe to shrink, and demographic changes to create vital skills gaps that will not be filled despite large-scale migration. But foresight is an opportunity to think beyond present structures and recognize that charting a trajectory from past to present does not always help us understand what is next, let alone inspire Europeans to build up a capacity to seize opportunities that may emerge en route to 2030. For this, the EU needs to overcome its negativity biases – for example, a perception of being a fortress under siege by migrants or of being stuck between the United States and China. Otherwise, its path will be one of fatalism and self-fulfilling fears.
Instead of, as today, charting trajectories and trying to predict the next big disruptive crisis, it is a useful mental exercise to accept that big disruptions will come and, so, to ask what alternative new paths these might open up for the EU. To this end, it is instructive to show how the COVID-19 pandemic is already altering trajectories in key fields by exacerbating the following:
Acceleration and deceleration: The digitization of supply chains and customer interaction leapt forward by an estimated four years and the creation of digital products by seven years. E-commerce’s share of global retail trade grew from 14 percent in 2019 to about 17 percent in 2020. The adoption of cryptocurrencies and moves toward a cashless society accelerated. Blockchain applications were used to track contagion, manage a tsunami of health insurance payments, and uphold medical supply chains. But other trends were sent into reverse, including biometric solutions such as fingerprint recognition, which rely on physical contact that now poses a health risk, and facial recognition, which became difficult in mask-wearing populations.
Unexpected new eventualities: The pandemic braked years of global demographic growth. The deadly virus exercised a downward effect although not through the predicted mechanism of increased deaths. Rather, the long-term demographic trajectory was depressed due to reduced births as families delayed having children or even dropped the idea altogether. Large cities and developed economies also experienced population loss through “reverse migration,” the return of migrant workers to their countries and rural areas of origin. And there was a growth in regional travel bubbles as neighboring countries focused away from global labor and concentrated on keeping their borders open to one another.
Lingering uncertainties: As for drivers of conflict like climate change, it is unclear whether the reduced emissions from physical travel or the growth of emissions from energy-hungry technologies like blockchain and cryptocurrency will win out. While political violence dipped by 10 percent month on month, and demonstrations significantly declined by roughly 30 percent, the increased use of online platforms seemed to herald a lurch toward authoritarianism and surveillance. But it is also worth underlining that these uncertainties remain largely because Europeans failed to seize the moment to ensure positive change – despite being first-movers on breakthroughs such as establishing regional travel bubbles.
Our Own Foresight Exercise
We at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) were not immune from the trend of looking at the future. In autumn 2020, we convened experts and officials for four three-day workshops to think of the global landscape in 2030, each of the four focusing on a different field of disruption with vast transformative potential: digital technologies, trade and geo-economics, emerging security threats, and large-scale migration. In each of these policy fields, we asked the group of experts to construct different versions of the future, drawing not on predictions and probabilities, but rather on eventualities that are plausible. We told them we wanted to know what the European future might look like if the EU responded to disruptions in a similar way as today, the status quo scenario; how it could avoid a worst-case scenario; and how it could move toward a best-case scenario. In other words, how to use these disruptive fields to change paths in positive ways.
As such, our scenarios were not built from projections, charting a line from (say) the 1990s through 2020 into the 2030s. For each of the four fields, our experts instead picked out a small selection of factors to provide scaffolding for global order in 2030: these variables had to rank as uncertain but influential – “high impact and high uncertainty” – when it came to determining the future within the respective policy fields. We then asked the groups to combine these variables in different ways, using the interplay to shape diverse future environments. The worlds we imagined were very different to today’s trajectory, but we were able to explain how we got there in retrospect, working our way backward from 2030 to 2020. Finally, having created multiple alternative futures, we asked the experts to “road test” the EU’s behavior under different conditions conducive to a status quo, worst, or best outcome.
In the field of security and defense, for instance, variables included big unknowns such as the future quality of multilateralism and the commitment to – or increasing irrelevance of – multilateral institutions. In tech, key factors included the capacity for climate governance or innovation and the level of advance or stagnation in tech companies. Several factors were considered as near “certainties” across scenarios. In almost every one, China became more powerful and influential than in 2020, there was more great power competition, and irregular and mass migration was considered a challenge or a threat by policymakers and the public alike. But, for instance, in spite of increasing geopolitical and US-China competition, no scenario foresaw that the US dollar would be fully eclipsed as a lead currency by 2030.
Five Key Takeaways for the EU’s Capacity to Act in 2030
We wanted all our futures to be plausible. But that does not mean that they are probable. Rather, we asked whether the combination of variables we chose and the path we subsequently plotted backward from 2030 to 2020 were credible. For this reason, readers should treat the various scenarios as creative thought exercises to identify opportunities and pitfalls but not take them at face value. Moreover, they are narrative scenarios, meaning, in some instances, that our experts or we ourselves added color to future events that we deemed relatively unlikely but which had a strong narrative effect. In order to underline certain conclusions and messages, for example, we envisioned that the European Commission would drive through the domestic use of “satellite internet” or that excessive climate geo-engineering by US companies would cause death zones in the Mediterranean.
Caveats aside, what can we learn from this exercise? Across the four fields, five findings emerged that are instructive:
First, perhaps unsurprisingly, all four of our individual policy fields are interconnected. Hardly any of the core variables that caused the most important effects can be allocated to either one or the other disruptive field (tech, climate, etc.). Even if the different policy fields are looked at in isolation, they interact. For example, the challenge of climate change and related mitigation (through multilateral action commitment) and adaptation (through innovative green technology) has an impact on the frequency and type of possible conflict, future migration and regional cooperation patterns, trade, and competition on innovation in tech. And states’ capacity to harness changes in each individual field relied on their access to dip into other fields, i.e., to access new technologies, capital, natural resources, and sharp minds.
Second, and similar to this, all twelve scenarios were ultimately determined by a limited number of variables that often overlapped. One of the variables that had a decisive impact across all scenarios is the quality of great power competition – not so much the degree of competition, confrontation, or cooperation between the United States and China, but rather the state of multilateralism and the appetite for international cooperation. This frequently defined whether scenarios turned out to be positive or negative – e.g., whether the EU’s neighbors felt like cooperating with the EU in terms of migration, whether global powers jointly worked on tech innovation and regulation or weaponized technologies, and whether they cooperated on solutions to mitigate climate change or escalated negative effects by either doing nothing or pursuing unilateral adaptation. To harness a crisis successfully, it helped if the EU had invested in strong international relations.
Third, no matter how these variables play out and however they are intertwined, their ultimate effect on Europe depended on domestic factors – the state of EU internal affairs, the level of trust of EU citizens, socioeconomic cohesion, and political unity – in short, on internal resilience. When working our way backward from 2030 to the present day, we found that, if there was a divide on a relevant issue within Europe to start with, it became harder for the EU to act in a crisis and easier for external actors to squeeze in and create a permanent gap. If domestic cohesion is high, by contrast, positive developments can be amplified, negative effects can be toned town, and (the old cliché, but never truer than in the disruptive decades of the 2020s) crises can even be turned into opportunity.
Fourth – illustrative of an urgent need for the EU to seize on opportunities for policy change – we observed that the status quo and worst-case scenarios were surprisingly similar. In the field of security, the status quo scenario sees paralyzed international security institutions: a NATO without the United States, an inactive United Nations Security Council, China militarily preserving its influence sphere, and conflicts over climate change. It is hard to imagine much worse than that, but the worst-case scenario nevertheless succeeded in imagining fragmented technological progress fueling climate over-adaptation with disaster ensuing. In the four status quo scenarios, we tended to imagine an EU that was following its current policy course of gaining greater autonomy, closing itself off from the world in a bid to maintain continuity. Moreover, in the scenarios with the worst outcomes, we found that this was because the EU had added a geopolitical dimension to its current course, pushing through its autonomous priorities with geopolitical tools and in the face of resistance abroad and at home.
This leads to the fifth and final observation on the role of “chance.” Some of the scenarios relied on chance political shifts that open new perspectives – a Green president of France building climate cooperation with the MENA region together with China, or a new UK Labour government keen to work with the EU in foreign and security policy. Some envisioned a sequence of crises so severe that they need to be tackled jointly – such as coastal flooding that threatens not one but multiple nuclear meltdowns in China’s power plants – and whose successful management reignites desire for multilateral cooperation. Conversely, some of the scenarios see events that unleash a negative domino effect, such as the dispute over the attribution of a cyberattack that ultimately breaks up NATO. The key takeaway here is that it is neither seemingly random events nor linear structural developments that determine in which position the EU finds itself in 2030 – but rather action.
And so, to the feel-good part: developments are not inherently bad or good; and the severity of a crisis does not necessarily lead to a worse outcome. Instead, it is by the EU’s own action, at home and with other powers, that it can forge new paths and define outcomes. Europe’s investment in a capacity to act – building a capacity to react to external developments, act in the face of pressure, and shape its environments – will determine whether its reality in 2030 will come closer to a worst-case or a best-case scenario. And, across the scenarios, that meant upfront investment in domestic and international dependencies and cohesion. Europe’s future is in its own hands.
The only trouble is that such open-ended investments are becoming harder and harder to make in today’s world. And yet, the EU has a long history of carefully using connectivity and markets to build cohesion and “domesticate” the sources of conflict and crisis – a history that is being blanked out in Paris and Berlin amid calls for Europe to “become” geopolitical. Proponents of this agenda paint the EU’s past use of markets and economic interdependence as naïve in order to justify it now closing itself off and trying unilaterally to regulate globalization. As such, they risk ignoring the real path of EU history, which was one of reinvention and mixing and matching competencies across different policy fields. It is this long history of geopolitics that the EU successfully tapped to achieve best-case outcomes.
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