The Brexit vote on June 23, 2016, made painfully clear how much European integration is currently under pressure – to the point of disintegrating. Negative consequences are mostly cast in economic terms but the desire to abandon the European Union (EU) – now formally expressed in Britain but also clearly voiced among other member state populations – could also mean a serious breach to EU crisis response capacity. Crises increasingly cross national borders and require intense cooperation and coordination of national responses. Member states turning their backs on each other is the last thing we need. If all countries involved in a transboundary crisis respond individually to adversity, they aggravate such a crisis rather than mitigate it.
Consider what happened during the 2010 volcanic ash crisis. This case illustrates how imperative decision making venues and coordinating capacity among national states can be, in situations that could be characterized as transboundary crises. On April 14, 2010 a cloud of volcanic ash from Iceland drifted over the European mainland. In a matter of days, 23 European countries decided to close their national air space in accordance with guidelines established by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO, stating: avoid flying through ash clouds at all times). Uncertainty ruled, on (1) the composition, dispersion and changing location of the ash cloud, (2) on ash tolerance levels of flight engines, and (3) on guiding principles for aviation safety. The result was that the strictest rule (an ICAO guideline emanating from a completely different context) was applied uniformly on a maximum scale in one of the busiest airspaces of the world. European aviation came to a grinding halt.
An ash-crisis was born. None of the individual countries dared to independently decide to re-open air space, while weather forecasts predicted the cloud to remain in place for days, if not weeks. Non-decisions did not only become increasingly costly for travelers and industries, but also became increasingly dangerous. Airline operators seized every possibility to escape the zero tolerance rule, deciding on their own uncoordinated approaches. Clearly, some authority would have to rise to the occasion and find a solution on which all parties could agree, as uniform application of rules was of the essence.
The EU Commission and the Spanish EU presidency took an initiative to European cooperation on April 17 with a coordinated recovery plan, to which all member states could and should abide. An extraordinary European Council was held on April 19 where the EU ministers of transport agreed on a common approach for flying through ash. All EU member states implemented a three zone-division plan with no-flying restrictions for high-ash concentration levels, controlled flying at lower-ash concentration levels, and unlimited flying in no-ash areas. Consequently, the continent moved out of its protracted stalemate and air traffic resumed on April 20.
In such sudden crisis situations that cross territorial and sectoral jurisdictions, when interests clash and power asymmetries abound, ‘orchestrating’ the coordination of crisis responses by the authorities involved is essential (Boin et al, 2015). Because the authorities responsible for the crisis response are not hierarchically related, they need an ‘orchestrating’ conductor that has to strike a careful balance between persuasion on the one hand and command and control on the other. The EU Commission took up that orchestrating role. The EU provided an authoritative platform (the council of Ministers of Transportation) and the EU facilitated and coordinated the transboundary ash crisis response in a remarkable way.
The future will likely bring us more transboundary crises, not only of the international mobility variety. Also pandemics, veterinary diseases and food safety issues are highly likely, as are contingencies stemming from the globalization of the energy and telecom markets. From a crisis management perspective, leaving the EU or diminishing its current capacity would be a very unsafe idea.