ESPAS 2019 - Challenges and Choices for Europe

ESPAS 2019 - Challenges and Choices for Europe

This ESPAS (European Strategy & Policy Analysis System) Conference took place in Brussels on 14/15 October.  As ever, the Conference was packed full of excellent presentations and panels.  This is a summary of six key themes that emerged over the two days.

The Rise (and Limits) of Populism

Last year’s ESPAS, coming just six months before the European Elections, was marked by uncertainty about how well populist and nationalist parties would perform in those elections.  This time, the Conference had the benefit of the results.  The populists had not stormed the gates.  However populism remains a force throughout the world in many different guises:

  • both unelected and democratically elected leaders;
  • both social and state-controlled media (and the suppression of minority and/or non-populist views); and
  • political and religious and other groupings.

We are seeing opposition movements and demonstrations in all parts of the world against Governments by groups seeking greater autonomy, fairer wealth distribution, better governance, or action against environmental damage.  Populism may not have captured the European Parliament, but it hasn’t gone away either.

The Climate Emergency

The climate agenda has seen its profile raised by a combination of factors: the latest IPCC Report on the impact of global temperature increase of 1.5% or more; Greta Thunberg and the “children’s strikes”, the rise of the Extinction Rebellion Movement across the World – where populism meets Green politics – and, in Europe, the strong performance of Green Parties in the European Elections.

At ESPAS, we heard from Hans Bruyminckx, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, that we canstill save the planet, but that incremental steps based on improving efficiency will no longer be enough. Transformational change will be needed, involving

  • systems thinking: eg vertical agriculture, factory-produced meat, changed lifestyles, and
  • a shift in financial and investment patterns to underpin these radical changes.

Speaker after speaker hammered home the same message: time is critically short, and the time for action is now.  And that action needs to be radical and transformational, not incremental and opportunistic.

Is the World Multipolar or Polynodal?

Whichever it is, the world is changing fast.  As at last year’s Conference, a lot of attention was given to the USA’s current trajectory away from existing institutions and agreements, and China’s spectacularly rapid rise, and ambiguous approach to rules governing trade and intellectual property.  While these two remain the two great economic and (increasingly, as China arms itself) military powers, there remain other global nodes – including regional and local disruptors: some of them on Europe’s own borders.

The EU continues to believe in international institutions, and a rules-based system focused on values of openness, democracy and freedom.  It is seeking to draw together other global allies in this view, on the basis that, even if America and China are bigger than the other powers, they need to trade and collaborate with the other powers.  Recent trade deals with Canada and Japan, and with the Mercosur group of South American countries, reflect in part the EU’s desire to work with other States and regional blocs to nurture and uphold a rules-based, collaborative agenda.

The Economic Outlook

Looking to the economic horizon, Europe seeks to keep close to China and the USA.  A particular issue of concern at this year’s Conference was rising inequality in many forms:

  • inequality within States and national economies, which can fuel populism and nationalism;
  • inequality between the generations, which is also a potentially polarising political force
  • inequality between regions
  • as well as economic inequality, unequal access to resources, including basic resources such as water.

Whilst the 4th Industrial Revolution offers huge advances in technology and other areas of science, major economic disruptions remain a fear, and could form a vicious cycle with populism, threatening political and social stability.


There was a widespread sense that the period of relative peace that accompanied the end of the Cold War and the “New World Order” has now come to an end.  There is increasing conflict in many regions of the world – involving States in parts of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, parts of Africa, and internal dissent and repression of minorities in many States beyond those conflict zones.  Religious conflicts, demands for regional autonomy, and suppression of minorities are a continuing threat to peace.  Asymmetric and cyber forms of conflict indicate an era of continuing “unpeace” in many regions.

The Conference heard that in a polynodal world with rising levels of conflict and populism, “power” will ignore the rules.  Some speakers advised the EU to increase its military spending, not because the USA had asked it to, but for its own sake.  But most important is the prevention and resolution of conflict, wherever possible.


The issues above add up to a testing agenda.  The rise of a polynodal world and the decline of the New World Order signal that more surprises – both welcome and unwelcome – can be expected.  As futurists, we were delighted to hear from Maroš Šefčovič, the Commission’s Vice-President Designate for International Relations & Foresight, that the Commission is committed as never before to developing foresight as a tool to help it develop its strategies and policies for this uncertain and unpredictable future.  His personal commitment, and that of other, senior Commission members and officials, was very encouraging.

Looking to that future, some other issues that are not yet at the top of the agenda, but probably will be, include:

  • Demography – the prospect of the populations in many regions (including Europe itself) aging and beginning to decline in size, whilst Africa’s population will grow fast and remain youthful. Wil this mark Africa’s emergence as a strategic and economic power a as the century progresses?  Will countries with aging populations covet Africa’s young people, or seek to exclude them?
  • Values – Europe sees its values as a strength. Others may disagree.  In some parts of the world including, but not only, Africa, those values are compromised by a colonial and post-colonial history in which the “rules” seemed to favour the “haves” over the “have-nots”.  And might the economic outperformance of Europe by China, and others, call into question those values?
  • The rising power of non-state actors – global technology companies, international banks, wealthy individuals, and other movements – terrorist networks, religious and other affinity networks. Can a reformed world order encompass these non-state actors?

In blogs to come, we will look at the key themes of ESPAS, and keep an eye on the three areas for the longer term.

Written by David Lye, SAMI Fellow and Director 

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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