Resilience is all you need

The more you look at it, the more the EU Global Strategy of 2016 seems to be about resilience. The word ‘resilience´ is everywhere in the strategy, and the concept of resilience quickly catches the eye. Scholars and analysts have already started deeper analyses of what to make out of this new ‘Leitmotif’ of the EU’s external action. They find many positive aspects to it, but also reasons for criticism. Being everywhere, but nowhere clearly defined, resilience remains a vague concept. Understandably, we like vague concepts. Resilience is all you need as long as you don’t specify what exactly it is you need, or how exactly you are able to contribute to it.


By Dr Hanna Ojanen, Jean Monnet Professor, University of Tampere

The more you look at it, the more the EU Global Strategy of 2016 seems to be about resilience. This might not have been the intention of those preparing it. Still, the concept of resilience quickly catches the eye – and this is not necessarily a bad thing.

The word ‘resilience´ is everywhere in the strategy: it speaks about the resilience of both states and of societies, and defines resilience as the ability of states and societies to reform, withstanding and recovering from internal and external crises. The strategy also addresses the resilience of critical infrastructure, networks and services, and the resilience of the EU’s democracies and societies. Resilience is mentioned even in the context of enlargement and of neighbourhood.

Scholars and analysts have already started deeper analyses of what to make out of this new ‘Leitmotif’ of the EU’s external action. They find many positive aspects to it, but also reasons for criticism.

Resilience surely is a convenient and also a ‘convening’ concept, as Wagner and Anholt put it: it seems to open up new ways for thinking and action, and as such, it may mobilize, make things possible and bring people together. It can motivate, but also direct action and focus. At the same time, it is vague and malleable and does not have specific political connotations. Thus, no one actually dislikes it – yet.  

But there can be more: focusing on resilience can shape the EU’s identity as an international actor. As a resilience-builder, the EU would emphasise internal capacities rather than external intervention; instead of bringing its own ideas to others, it would help others develop theirs. It would show more restraint and be more credible. It would be a mentor or facilitator that emphasizes local ownership and thus be more legitimate.

focusing on resilience can shape the EU’s identity as an international actor. As a resilience-builder, the EU would emphasise internal capacities rather than external intervention; instead of bringing its own ideas to others, it would help others develop theirs.

Resilience has also been seen as a sign of new thinking in new times: a shift from focusing on known threats and prevention to understanding that in the current complexity and uncertainty, it is impossible to predict threats: one needs to live with uncertainty rather than to try to eliminate it. This is what resilience is about: the ability to cope and recover.

But there are problems, too. As Juncos points out, the new pragmatism of resilience is good and welcome – but problematic when it runs against the idea of principled action. A central theme in the strategy is “principled pragmatism”. Principles, values and interests are still there: peace and security, prosperity, democracy and a rule-based international order. Pragmatism challenges the universality of values and creates double standards by inviting to finding local solutions to local problems. The EU cannot be both pragmatic and principled without running the risk of being accused of inconsistency and double standards, Juncos argues.

For Biscop, resilience represents defensive thinking. It may help problems persist, make repressive regimes more resilient. He sees a risk that neighbours start to see the EU as irrelevant, not being able to show what positive difference it could make.

Another question is whether the EU actually is or can become a successful actor in enhancing resilience. While resilience seems to be the main goal, the document does not look like a strategy for increasing resilience. Perhaps the EU just continues doing what it did before, just renamed. In order to do something, to change something purposefully, a more precise understanding of resilience is needed, based on analysis of who is resilient and why. Answers may vary from country to country, and also in time.

In order to do something, to change something purposefully, a more precise understanding of resilience is needed, based on analysis of who is resilient and why. Answers may vary from country to country, and also in time.

Thinking about resilience does, in any case, offer interesting perspectives to the EU. What about the resilience of the EU itself? The EU is surprisingly good in reforming itself, in withstanding crises, even in reform. It used to be quite good in treaty reform, contrary to many other organisations, and it still shows ability in inventing new ways and procedures, as the banking union shows. Where we might see problems is in the resilience of the member states. That the EU could help them is not a new idea; rather, it has always been the crux of integration for those seeing it as ‘rescue of the nation-state’. For the member states to lean on the EU necessitates, however, stopping the straw manning of the Union and making way for seeing it, for a change, in a positive role. Here, too, surfaces the question of principles: how to avoid instrumentalising the Union to consolidation whatever new practices of corruption or reductions of freedom of expression?

Understandably, we like vague concepts. Resilience is all you need as long as you don’t specify what exactly it is you need, or how exactly you are able to contribute to it.

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