Written by Jack Smith
The Covid-19 pandemic has seen both individual EU member states and the EU itself engage in a practice which Critical Security Studies scholars call ‘securitisation’. This is one where a particular issue is framed as an existentially dangerous ‘threat’, which can only be responded to with ‘exceptional’ actions bypassing normal politics. Politicians at all levels within the EU have frequently done this in order to counter the pandemic, both from a public health and economic perspective. This is, however, a process that has, at best, seen mixed success in the EU and will be unsustainable. In order to manage the next phase of the pandemic, after large-scale vaccinations and ‘opening up’, the EU will instead need to adopt a ‘risk management’-centred approach. Instead of bypassing normal politics to fight the pandemic, EU policymakers will have to find a more sustainable, long-term ‘new normal’.
Background – Securitising the Covid-19 Pandemic
The past year and a half has seen life upended by the Covid-19 pandemic. Europeans have spent much of this time in lockdowns of varying severity, in which basic freedoms are restricted in a manner that would previously have been unthinkable in modern democracies. States have assumed significantly more responsibility for the day-to-day economic wellbeing of their own citizens as a result of business closures, and in some cases are paying large proportions of their salaries. The EU has taken on a number of new competences, most notably through its responsibility for Covid-19 vaccine procurement and its role in underwriting debt for member states as part of the new EU wide Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF).
These actions are but a few of the results of securitisation during the Covid-19 pandemic in the EU. Securitisation is a process by which discourses concerning a particular set of issues lead them “to be staged as existential threats to a referent object by a securitizing actor who thereby generates endorsement of emergency measures beyond rules that would otherwise bind” (Buzan, Waever, & De Wilde, 1997, p. 5) and has evidently come into play in Europe during the Covid-19 pandemic. From French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement in March 2020, that France was “at war” with the virus (Lemarié & Pietralunga, 2020) to mobilisations of military forces to tackle the pandemic (Kliem, 2020, p. 3) and the metaphors employed by Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán (Molnár, Takács, & Harnos, 2020), examples of securitising discourse are bountiful across the EU.
The Limits of Securitisation
To say that the pandemic has become securitised is not to say that the approach taken is necessarily wrong by its very nature. There is no doubt that lockdowns, coupled with securitisation-induced compliance have saved a considerable number of lives, and the EU’s increased powers throughout the pandemic are justifiable. The expanded fiscal scope of the MFF was arguably necessary to stave off a large-scale financial crisis in the EU (Rios, 2020), and the EU not taking responsibility for vaccine procurement potentially could have set vaccinations back in smaller member states (Deutsch & Wheaton, 2021). If anything, the EU’s vaccine procurement programme suffered from too much adherence to ‘rules that would otherwise bind’, as an excessive focus on process hobbled supplies early on in the vaccine rollout (Deutsch & Wheaton, 2021).
Nevertheless, the rhetoric used by politicians and the way in which they have gone about making these decisions comes with its own problems. This is perhaps most obvious in Hungary, where, as Pollak and I have previously argued, securitised rhetoric was used to justify a lurch towards authoritarianism (Pollak & Smith, 2020). Circumventions of normal political processes in order to ‘fight’ the pandemic led to governments in the Netherlands and Austria both facing legal challenges to lockdowns (The BBC, 2021) (Grüll, 2020). Denmark provided an even clearer example of this when the Danish government inadvertently broke the law by calling for a cull of mink farms to prevent the spread of a potentially dangerous Covid-19 variant without the approval of the Danish Parliament (Milne, 2020). The MFF has also faced a difficult reckoning with ‘normal politics’ – the procedures and debates that precede and follow non-emergency political decisions – as it ran into difficulties when being ratified by Finland (Vanttinen, 2021).
From ‘threats’ to ‘risks’
There is, however, another approach that the EU can take in managing the pandemic. Rather than viewing the pandemic as a threat to be combatted through ‘exceptional’ action, we can instead think of Covid-19 as a longer-term ‘risk’ that will need to be managed by engaging in ‘normal politics’ rather than bypassing it. Starting with thinkers like Beck (1992), who saw contemporary society as being defined by the need to manage risks that modernity itself has generated, Corry distinguishes between the approaches of threat-defined securitisation and that of risk management, writing that:
“securitisation theory suggests that emergency measures are the hallmark of security, [but] risks by their very nature cannot be eradicated, only managed, and thus a politics of emergency and exceptionality is replaced with a politics of permanence and long-termism”
(Corry, 2012, p. 245)
While it’s not necessarily the case that securitisation and risk management are mutually exclusive approaches to tackling ‘non-traditional’ security issues, the two are clearly quite different. One emphasises bypassing the way in which politics is normally done – the processes and procedures that ‘check and balance’ or ‘slow down’ decision making, depending on one’s perspective – while the other stresses integrating the response into these processes.
Defending Europe against ‘long Covid’
Thinking about Covid-19 as a risk rather than an ‘existential threat’ that needs to be securitised to be properly dealt with is valuable given two aspects of the pandemic which are becoming clear. The first is that the Virus is likely to be with us for some time, “continuing to circulate in pockets of the global population for years to come and causing outbreaks in regions where it had been eliminated” (Torjesen, 2021, p. 494). There will probably be no ‘silver bullet’ for Covid-19, meaning that managing its impact in the long term, rather than constantly resorting to emergency measures, will be necessary. This will be as true of the economic consequences of the pandemic as it is of the public health implications, indeed, it is likely that at least some of the shifts the world has seen will persist long after any initial economic recovery (Ramsden, 2020, p. 4).
Secondly, while Covid-19 itself will linger much longer than anyone might have expected a year ago, the nature of the pandemic itself is already changing rapidly. So far, vaccines have performed incredibly well, cutting cases, serious illness and death from Covid-19 significantly (Burn-Murdoch, 2021). Israel, one of the global ‘leaders’ in Covid vaccinations, has seen cases decline even as restrictions on economic and social activity have been substantially lifted (Scraer, 2021). As vaccination rates pick up across the EU, the endgame for the intensive phase of the pandemic which we have been living in since March 2020 is arguably in sight – at least within the EU itself.
What these two factors together mean is that successfully handling the pandemic will increasingly become a matter of managing what political risk consultancy, the Eurasia Group, has monikered ‘Long Covid’: the lingering impacts of the pandemic (Bremmer & Kupchan, 2021). The Eurasia Group’s report mostly focused on the economic effects of this phenomenon, however there is a need for a comprehensive public health strategy as well to ensure in particular that booster vaccines – essential both to ‘top up’ immunity to the virus and protect against new, potentially ‘vaccine-escaping’ variants – are ordered, manufactured and delivered effectively. In order to transition to the ‘risk management’ approach which this issue necessitates by virtue of being longer-term in its scope, a process of ‘de-securitisation’ will be crucial, to allow for “the shifting of issues out of emergency mode and into the normal bargaining processes of the political sphere” (Buzan, Waever, & De Wilde, 1997, p. 4).
In short, managing the ‘long tail’ of the Covid-19 pandemic will require a forward-thinking approach. Policies which may be with us for years, or even decades, cannot and should not be shrouded in the opacity that securitised ‘emergency’ rhetoric justifies. In the EU, at both the member state level and the supranational level and between them, tackling Covid-19 will mean making a ‘new normal’, with all of the debate, oversight and process that normal politics entails.
Beck, U. (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage Publications.
Bremmer, I., & Kupchan, C. (2021, January 4). Risk 2: Long Covid. Retrieved from The Eurasia Group: https://www.eurasiagroup.net/live-post/top-risks-2021-risk-2-long-covid
Burn-Murdoch, J. (2021, April 21). Vaccines are working: charts that show the Covid endgame. Retrieved from The Financial Times: https://www.ft.com/content/d71729a3-72e8-490c-bd7e-757027f9b226
Buzan, B., Waever, O., & De Wilde, J. (1997). Security: a New Framework for Analysis. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers .
Corry, O. (2012). Securitisation and ‘Riskification’: Second-order Security and the Politics of Climate Change. Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 235-258.
Deutsch, J., & Wheaton, S. (2021, January 27). How Europe fell behind on vaccines . Retrieved from Politico: https://www.politico.eu/article/europe-coronavirus-vaccine-struggle-pfizer-biontech-astrazeneca/
Grüll, P. (2020, July 28). Austrian health minister wants to ‘repair’ coronavirus measures following court ruling. Retrieved from Euractiv: https://www.euractiv.com/section/coronavirus/news/austrian-health-minister-wants-to-repair-coronavirus-measures-following-court-ruling/
Kliem, F. (2020). How EU-ASEAN Inter-Regionalism can strengthen Pandemic Management. S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Lemarié, A., & Pietralunga, C. (2020, March 17). « Nous sommes en guerre » : face au coronavirus, Emmanuel Macron sonne la « mobilisation générale ». Retrieved from Le Monde: https://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2020/03/17/nous-sommes-en-guerre-face-au-coronavirus-emmanuel-macron-sonne-la-mobilisation-generale_6033338_823448.html
Milne, R. (2020, November 18). Danish agriculture minister resigns as mink scandal intensifies. Retrieved from The Financial Times: https://www.ft.com/content/e2b9dfcf-c887-4038-9d74-85cb7c63b93a
Molnár, A., Takács, L., & Harnos, É. J. (2020). Securitization of the COVID-19 pandemic by metaphoric discourse during the state of emergency in Hungary. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 1167-1182.
Pollak, M., & Smith, J. (2020, May 9). EST Briefing on Corona Autocracy in Hungary. Retrieved from European Student Think Tank: https://esthinktank.com/2020/05/09/est-briefing-on-corona-autocracy-in-hungary/
Ramsden, D. (2020). The potential long-term economic effects of Covid. Nottingham: Institute for Policy and Engagement.
Rios, B. (2020, July 17). EU leaders pressed to overcome differences and agree on historic stimulus. Retrieved from Euractiv: https://www.euractiv.com/section/economy-jobs/news/eu-leaders-pressed-to-overcome-differences-to-agree-on-historic-stimulus/
Scraer, R. (2021, April 14). Covid: ‘Israel may be reaching herd immunity’. Retrieved from The BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/health-56722186
The BBC. (2021, February 16). Covid: Dutch crisis as court orders end to Covid curfew. Retrieved from BBC News – Europe: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-56084466
Torjesen, I. (2021). Covid-19 will become endemic but with decreased potency over time, scientists believe. The British Medical Journal, 494.
Vanttinen, P. (2021, April 16). Approving EU recovery package in Finland proves more difficult than expected. Retrieved from Euractiv: https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/approving-eu-recovery-package-in-finland-proves-more-difficult-than-expected/
 Germany’s kurzarbeit scheme is perhaps the most notable example of this practice. It involves reducing employees’ working hours instead of making them redundant, with 60% of the reduced hours being covered by the scheme (The International Monetary Fund, 2020)