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A culture of civil defence is key to Europe’s resilience

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Europe needs a more comprehensive understanding of resilience and a shift in its understanding of civil defence, write Peter Hefele and Michaela Knošková.

Peter Hefele is the Policy Director of the Martens Centre in Brussels, and co-author Michaela Knošková is a politics student at Kings College London and an intern at the Martens Centre.

Europe’s strategic turning point in reaction to the war in Ukraine has been, at least in public perception, dominated by the discussion on military budgets, rearmament, and more effective procurement and deployment of European military capabilities.

A changing pattern of European confrontation with Russia re-opened memories of the Cold War era. However, the debate omitted the crucial element of Western Europe’s defence architecture at the time – the civil component, usually termed civil or civic defence/security/protection (i.e., in Germany, “Zivilschutz” or “Protezione Civile” in Italy).

During the Cold War, civil defence contributed to the comprehensive understanding of security and the underlying administrative, personal and material structures. In other words, it was a necessary complement to military defence in the context of concrete and direct threats coming from a stable enemy, including the system of shelters, supplies, sirens, etc.

Nevertheless, since the 1990s – the beginning of the age of geopolitical “naïveté” in Europe –this civil component has been largely dismantled, with the possible exception of the Nordic countries, such as Finland. Unlike in Germany, the civil aspect in those countries remained unaffected despite a considerable reduction in the security budget.

In the current context of Russian confrontation, renewing the discussion on civil defence is essential, and not only because of its gradual dismantlement in previous decades.

The global evolution of hybrid warfare exploits the unprecedented economic and informational interconnection, revolutionising the existing threat theatre. In Europe, adequate countermeasures to deal with this new type of total war are developing slowly and with a deplorable delay.

Conversely, official Chinese and Russian military doctrines have covered this multilayer approach of attacks and grey zone activities for over a decade. The threats often come from nonspecific adversaries, and our modern digitalised and highly mobile societies have become unprecedently vulnerable.

With these challenges in mind, Europe needs a more comprehensive understanding of resilience and a shift in its understanding of civil defence. This new understanding should primarily cover the systematic building up of structures and mentalities of resilience against internal and external shocks, whereby this differentiation has almost completely lost its meaning.

This comprehensive approach should not be confused with “militarisation” or “excessive securitisation” of European societies and economies, as some critics claim. Quite the contrary: it is the overdue answer to the conditions of the “age of unpeace” (Mark Leonard), in which connectivity and interdependencies have unfortunately become significant sources of vulnerability and conflict.

To build up the structures and mentalities of resilience, we must improve the policy coherence at national and European levels. Coherence has been at the top of the agenda in environmental, development, and energy policies and is also crucial for renewed discussion on civil defence.

Policies across various member states must be coordinated and complementary to achieve a unified response in case of international and/or large-scale disasters.

Encouragingly, the EU has made substantial progress in coordinating the civil defence policies of member states in recent years.

In 2021, the European Parliament adopted a decision to improve the capacity of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism through a considerable budget increase to €1.26 billion for 2021–2027.

The EU has also extended its competencies by introducing “rescEU” – a reserve at the European level of civil protection capabilities that allows the Commission to complement existing capacities at the national level.

Nevertheless, cross-border coordination should not solely be left to a top-down approach.

Numerous successful initiatives exist between neighbouring European regions, even across borders. The EU should not forget the importance of cross-national lessons and follow the principle of European subsidiarity by incentivising and fostering international cooperation among municipalities, businesses, communities, and other stakeholders.

Compared to the EU´s vertical coherence, the consistency of policies constituting or affecting European civil defence is relatively limited.

So far, the discussion on resilience has been taking place in different professional “silos”, including global health risks, the consequences of climate change, and supply chain disruption.

This is further reinforced by the EU’s policy instruments and funds dedicated to post-event crisis management. Other major actors, such as the US and China, systematically and continuously review their strategic vulnerabilities ex-ante and have taken concrete countermeasures.

Thus, to promote a comprehensive understanding of civil defence, the EU should create platforms for a strategic dialogue between multiple segments of politics, administration, industry, and civil society actors.

This dialogue could further contribute to bridging different threat perceptions and mentalities and help develop a shared understanding of the challenges necessary for a resilient Europe.