COVID-19 Crisis in Europe: A Failure of Science Diplomacy?

SciTech DiploHub, the Barcelona Science and Technology Diplomacy Hub, has recently started weekly online talks with science diplomacy experts and stakeholders to reflect on the implications of the COVID-19 crisis. Titled “#SciDipTalks”, this series comprises five online conversations. The first session, in which S4D4C also took part, covered the topic of international cooperation in times of global pandemics. You can read an event review HERE.

The topic of the second session was titled “COVID-19 Crisis in Europe: A Failure of Science Diplomacy?” The discussion addressed the European response to the crisis and the potential opportunities and challenges that could arise from it. Carme COLOMINA, Journalist for Cidob Barcelona and lecturer at the College of Europe, moderated the session. Three experts were invited to the discussion. Among them, S4D4C’s team member, Ivo ŠLOSARČÍK,  professor of European Integration Studies and Jean Monnet Chair in EU Politics and Administration (2017) and Jean Monnet Chair in EU Law (2006) at the Charles University in Prague. Also present were Sara CEBRIAN, Science and Innovation attaché at the British Embassy of Madrid and Pol MORILLAS, Director of the Barcelona Centre of International Affairs, at CIDOB.

What was discussed ?

The moderator started the seminar by stressing that the crisis reveals the vulnerabilities of the interconnected world, where the EU is caught in a difficult situation between national interests and solidarity efforts. The moderator asked the speakers to reflect on the following topics: Can the EU organise a true European response ? What is the role of Science Diplomacy in that context? Could the Corona crisis serve certain political agendas? How is scientific knowledge interlinked with politics?

Pol MORILLAS opened the discussion by outlining that the EU reaction to COVID-19 is akin to how the EU usually reacts when facing a crisis.This time again the EU follows a typical four stages process. First, the EU is somewhat taken by surprise by the crisis, even if the possibility of the crisis was considered, it was disconnected of reality. Second, Member States follow a “my country first” approach by adopting a state centric strategy, considering national interest prior to European interests. In the third phase, which is where we find ourselves today, the EU response starts to emerge and tools for coordinated EU action are set into force (i.e. European Central Bank for national public debt support). The last step is the post-crisis re-adjustment: the crisis highlights the EU’s own weaknesses which will require change for the future. The next European Council might address the question of structural change, and what remains to be seen is whether the corona crisis will lead to more European integration.

Next, Sara CEBRIAN was asked to give her perspective on the British crisis management. She described the structure in place in the UK to facilitate informed and evidence-based policy making in the country. This structure is being extensively used while dealing with COVID-19.

The UK has a network of agencies and scientific advisors entrusted to give scientific advices to the ministers. The legislative power also has a scientific parliamentary office which produces scientific reports for deputies. In addition, the UK’s international network of science attachés monitors the development in other countries. Lastly, SAGE, the UK scientific advisory group for emergencies, set up additional advisory groups to collect all scientific advices available to be provided to the Prime Minister and needed to put in place the action plan against COVID-19. The COVID-19 action plan was scientifically led, and aims to save lives and protect the National Health System (NHS). Herd immunity is not part of the action plan but a welcome side effect. Sara stressed that:

The way to tackle the crisis is to be guided by science, to take the rights steps in the right time, to overcome this crisis. 

Moving away from a nation-state perspective, the moderator asked how the crisis would change the global context? Does the crisis bring a new role of knowledge , especially in an era where knowledge has been rejected?

To answer the first question, Pol reflected on EU values of supranationalism and liberalism which have been rather unpopular in the last decade of the world as a political ideology. Those values are rather opposite to the values of Trump, Putin, Mohdi etc. which have a multipolar and nation-state centred world vision. In that context, the EU is not very fashionable. Maybe the EU will be brought to change its values towards this new geo-political ideology. It has certainly started to speak the same language by adopting a discourse that refers more to power, defence, borders etc. The EU and its Member States have been adapting their narrative. Nonetheless, COVID-19 could prevent this trend. Global powers might realise that global governance is needed. This is truly the first crisis which affects the system, the nation and the individual. Out of this, the understanding that we need to better articulate global governance might arise. This would place the EU at the front stage as a norm setter of international cooperation.

Following Pol’s intervention, Sara elaborated more on the role of knowledge and stressed that it was more and more seen as central to international cooperation. To think collectively and collaborate, sharing knowledge and talent is paramount. We already see this happening with the building of an international coalition to find a vaccine. The UK is committed to be part of this scientific cooperation. Even if BREXIT means that they are no longer part of the EU, the UK is still very much part of Europe, and cares about its EU partners. The UK wants to continue the strong collaboration with the EU.

For the next part of the session the moderator turned to Ivo ŠLOSARČÍK for his opinion on the interaction between science, diplomacy and politics during the crisis.

Ivo opened with the following statement:

We are witnessing a triple comeback: the return of the experts and evidence in public policy, the rise of the nation state, and the revival of bilateral diplomacy, even at the expense of the EU.

While the last few years showed that people of Europe were fed up with experts, they are now on the front stage. What is interesting to see is that there is no single solution available ( i.e. UK strategy shift). Politicians turn back to scientists and experts to find legitimacy and use access to science as a legitimising tool. Would this continue after the crisis ? Do experts have legitimacy to tell people what to do? Along the return of the experts, we also witness the return of the state, where the state is taking the lead without much attention paid to the EU. This goes hand in hand with the return of intra-European diplomacy. Bilateral connections between Member States are favoured and bypass the EU.

The moderator then asked the speakers to share their impression which lessons have been already learned from the crisis.

Ivo stressed that while it was still very early to answer that question, we can notice that the political community is in a state of shock. The return to the expert is a reaction of politicians needing legitimacy. Pol further expressed that the crisis will not lead to a big-bang change for EU integration but rather small incremental changes will take place.  A solidarity narrative would be most welcomed. Pol stressed that :

A major question which still needs to be addressed is whether the current crisis will serve the purpose of reform within the European Union by ending institutional deadlocks, building awareness of own weaknesses & contributing to a better common policy in the future.

Finally, Sara emphasised that we learn from all crises. Politicians need to work hand in hand with science, and for this to be possible an appropriate structure has to be provided in advance. Solidarity would be the greatest outcome. To overcome states of crises we need to be generous and share information.

The formal discussion ended to give place to some questions from the audience. 

Many questions concerned the rising authoritarianism in the EU. Pol reacted to that question by highlighting that while populism seems to be here to stay, the capacity of governments who did not have an expert-based approach has been undermined by the crisis (i.e UK). To this statement, Sara clarified that the British government was always guided by scientific advice and simply wasn’t affected by the crisis as the EU at the time when the ‘herd immunity’ statement was made public. Ivo complemented the discussion by stressing that more autocratic behaviours are to be expected. Politicians might appreciate the technocratic approach for its quickness and might find it hard to give it again away after the crisis. Especially in times of crisis, it is very important to stay critical of the state and its actions. We should prevent the narrative that critisising the government is hampering the resolution of the crisis. Instead, it helps ensuring that the end of the crisis does not give birth to a new problem. To answer a question on how the EU should react towards the newest measures taken by Hungary, Ivo put forward that the EU has limited power in that regard and that it will be able to only check for temporality and proportionality of the measures.

The talk concluded with some final statements. Sara stressed once more the wish to collaborate with European partners and the necessity to think collectively and work together with scientists.

Ivo concluded with an open question :

Will the reaction to corona crisis be a cluster of national solutions or will the EU return as a powerful actor?

➡️💻 A recording of the #SciDipTalk 2 “COVID-19 Crisis in Europe: A Failure of Science Diplomacy ? ” will be made available on the Youtube channel of the SciTech DiploHub. 

The next #SciDipTalk takes place this Thursday, April 9, featuring the topic: “Barcelona and the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Role of Global Cities”. Find all information here

Laure-Anne Plumhans

Posted by Laure-Anne Plumhans