New Study: Making Sense of EU Sense-Making

One of the greatest challenges to managing modern crises is foresight. How can we see a crisis coming? Recent history is full of examples of failed foresight: September 11, the Tsunami disaster, food safety scandals, and the Arab Spring. In a globalized world where crises originate and travel across borders with ease, the challenge is multiplied by the inefficacy of national approaches. Rarely does one state have the capacity or the ability to spot the “next one” coming. Cooperation with neighboring states is critical — not only to spot a possible oncoming crisis but also to make sense of what is happening.

The European Union’s foresight capacities are poorly known. Recent research shows the EU is increasingly assisting member states in managing “transboundary crises”, but little is known about its ability to help member states makes sense of unfolding crises. A recent book by the Societal Security Research group aims to improve our understanding. Using an analytical framework familiar to crisis management scholars, the study examines all the EU’s tools and information systems relevant to crisis management. Those systems are analyzed in terms of their ability to help detect, analyze and communicate oncoming crises. The results are impressive.

Eighty-four systems were found and inventoried. These range from severe weather warnings to political conflict predictors. The “Early Warning and Response System” for pandemics and other health threats is an example. It links national capitals, compiles information, and looks for clues from multiple sources that, when analyzed together, helps to identify a possible outbreak. The Integrated Political Crisis Response system combines crisis information with EU decision-makers to quickly address a crisis. These and many other systems are examined in depth in the new book available here, and presented in a short article by the EU’s Institute for Security Studies here. It is clear that even member states of the EU are not aware of the full extent of the EU’s capacities to foresee future crises.

The book identifies a number of problems, however. The crisis warnings systems operate at different levels of functionality – some are simple websites, while others are 24/7 staffed units – which generates mixed expectations amongst national officials. Attempts are being made to link these systems up, through the ARGUS “system of systems”, for instance, but the process is slow. Since modern crises cascade across sectors, it is not clear whether different warning systems can communicate effectively with one another. More research is needed, but the EU’s growing role in helping to manage crises in a complex, globalized world is worth keeping track of.