Crises span more and more frequently over countries. Yet, effective transboundary crisis management remains difficult to achieve in the European Union.
One of the reasons for the increasing reluctance of member states to engage in, or to commit to European transboundary crisis management is the accountability challenge (as we identified in the Transcrisis research project). This challenge is not just about the well-known accountability deficit of European bureaucratic institutions, it is about the disjunction between crisis management operations, and accountability mechanisms. In other words, while transboundary crises require joint, or at least coordinated, actions from affected states, accountability remains de facto a national competence.
Elected political leaders indeed face the following challenge. On the one hand, they need to be seen acting with their fellow leaders to tackle a crisis – and coordination is key to ensure efficiency in crisis management. On the other hand, nationally elected leaders may be tempted to protect first their citizens to whom they are accountable. As European member states, economies, environment and societies are increasingly integrated, this challenge is becoming more and more acute, as suggests the recurrent European ‘crisis’ summits to deal with migration, Brexit, and previously Greece, or banking crises.
Disjunctions of accountability and crisis management mechanisms can lead to a lack of coordination, and therefore inefficient crisis solving (from an European point of view). Another interesting example is that of electricity. Electricity transmission networks are today interconnected across Europe, which means that on the one hand countries can help each other, but on the other hand, that a crisis in one country may also affect its neighbour. As the interruption of electricity provision can have serious consequences on the daily life of citizens, and the provision of essential services such as transportation or health, governments are wary about such measures, and want to protect their network first – which may come at the detriment of their neighbours. Such was the case during the last 2016 and 2017 ‘winter crises’ when Bulgaria interrupted the exchange of electricity with its neighbours, or when France seems to have reduced access to foreign providers. If ‘technical’ coordination mechanisms exist between transmission system operators (through ‘network codes’, bilateral agreements, and joint crisis management centres), no mechanisms are in place to coordinate political decisions during electricity crises. European leaders have so far resisted to proceed with a further pooling of crisis management capacities, because the decision to shut down a network is eventually political.
A solution, adopted in various cases to improve the effectiveness of EU transboundary crisis management, has been the creation of EU crisis management bodies, such as the Crisis Management Mechanism (Boin, Ekengren, Rhinard, 2013). Unfortunately, this does not solve the accountability challenge since such bodies are by definition bureaucratic, while national leaders are still being held accountable at home for decisions taken in Brussels (despite the existence of formal accountability mechanisms within European institutions). Again, such disjunction may hamper not just the effectiveness of crisis management, but also any solution to the sense of a crisis in the European project.
Banking provides here a textbook case. Banking crisis management is now a European competence – for euro area countries at least – in the hand of an agency in Brussels (the Single Resolution Board). The Banking Resolution and Recovery Directed (2014) harmonised procedures to manage failing banks so as to improve coordination within the European Union. Yet, national leaders are still the ones who have to face the consequences of bank failures for their citizens, which may incentivize them to twist the rules in their favour. Italy did so, when in 2017 it decided to use a special liquidation law to rescue two Venetian banks, reorganising them and providing guarantees, despite the fact that the Single Resolution Board had deemed that a resolution, and the use of public resources were not in the (European) public interest. In an opposite case, when in June 2017 the Single Resolution Board took a decision to put a failing Spanish bank (Banco Popular) into ‘resolution’, it triggered massive popular discontent in Spain as the bank was sold to another already large Bank (Santander), and the government was accused of favouring a concentration of the market at the expense of customers.
Transboundary crises are here to stay. Acknowledging these challenges is key to solving current political blockages. This is far from being obvious or easy. Whatever the chosen solutions for tackling transboundary crisis management are, aligning crisis management and accountability mechanisms should be a key priority, if the European Union is to engage with the political challenges it faces.