«The Answer to Emergency is Politics from Below». A Talk with Jonathan White
Simone Disegni 3 April 2020

Just days before the end of 2019, or the start of the worst pandemic contemporary generations have been confronted with, the Oxford University Press published a long-researched study which would be bound to sound prophetic in a matter of weeks: Politics of Last Resort. Governing by Emergency in the European Union.

Its author, Jonathan White, the deputy head of London School of Economics’ European Institute, had no crystal ball on the health disasters to come, clearly. By looking systematically at the “crisis mode” management of EU affairs over the last decade, however, he was warning his fellow European citizens – as well as scholars – of a particularly worrisome trend that seemed to consolidate itself in the hybrid EU political space; one that would be able to corrode democracy from within. «The idea of extreme circumstances that need to be overcome, and that give licence for unconventional measures of last resort, has become central to how decisions are made», he writes in the introduction to the book, pointing at «the ascendancy of a governing mode centred on the logic of emergency».

As the most unpredictable of “natural disasters” has cruelly hit Europe, moving fast through its southern members like Italy and Spain to the whole of the continent, the fragile Union seems faced with an existential threat. A failure to adequately respond to the looming economic catastrophe may well lead to further, devastating divisions after Brexit. Yet at stake, as the Hungarian case brutally demonstrates, is also the preservation of its unique democratic model. Confined to our homes by the pandemic, we reflect on all this with the LSE political scientist.


Prof. White, the European Communities were born in the aftermath of World War II to ensure peace and stability on the Old Continent after centuries of hatred and violence. For all their imperfections, they did. Now that the closest thing to a war – at least for its promised economic impact – has hit the Union, the lack of concrete solidarity between its member States is so evident many fear the EU risks breaking up. Are they exaggerating?

The break-up of the Eurozone is entirely conceivable, and one can’t exclude that the EU would be dragged down with it. But another scenario, perhaps more likely, is the continuation of the EU in a distorted form, with an increasing discrepancy between the EU ‘on paper’ and how it functions in practice.  One can imagine an EU that continually introduces ‘temporary’ deviations from its official rules – temporary restrictions on border crossing, part-suspensions of national democracy to restructure economies, and regular recourse to informal forums such as the Eurogroup to take key decisions away from the Commission and Parliament. This has been the legacy of the EU’s other recent crises: formally the Union remains intact, but the way it conducts itself is increasingly discrepant with its stated ideals and norms. This may be more likely than the wholesale collapse of the EU – after all, it suits many that there should at least remain the semblance of a transnational order, as otherwise all that is left is undisguised power.

In his study of authoritarian rule in the 1930s, the German scholar Ernst Fraenkel detailed the difficulties that arise when formal rules and informal methods exist in parallel. The former present an image of procedural order belied by the latter. A ‘normative state’, shaped around laws and procedures and the basis of the order’s legitimacy, becomes flanked by a ‘prerogative state’, indifferent to them and willing to override them. His term to describe this was the ‘dual state’, whereby the appearance of a rule-bound order is combined with something more arbitrary.  This is one way to think of where the EU is going – and the more Europe’s mass publics become attuned to this, the more their cynicism will grow.

There are other scenarios too of course; potentially this crisis could be used to create economic systems that work more to the advantage of weaker economies and subordinate groups; we will see how the stand-off on eurobonds plays out. But this too is not without its risks. Innovations agreed in a crisis are rarely democracy-friendly, since the urgency of the moment encourages efforts to avoid additional constraints on executive power. Steps in this context towards ‘more Europe’ could easily be steps away from a more democratic Europe.


In a matter of weeks, Germany and the rest of the EU leadership have agreed to “suspend” any fiscal discipline rule which had been regarded as economic orthodoxy for the past 30 years. A proof that we have entered an extraordinary era, or that they were perhaps unfit to meet the needs of citizens in a fragile, globalized world?

Your question gets at something important. For any policy shift happening in the wake of the pandemic, it is tempting to think of the virus situation as a sufficient explanation – to see these shifts as responses. But clearly that’s not always the case. Sometimes a crisis is used to rationalise a shift that policy-makers had been wanting to make anyway, either because the policies were counter-productive or increasingly unpopular. Moves away from the austerity paradigm would be one example. The emergency context allows governments to present actions as responses to necessity, whereas a freely-chosen policy shift opens its authors to the charge of inconsistency or implies there was something wrong with the original policy.

There may be something of this in the current willingness of EU ministers and the Commission to depart from the budgetary rules of the Stability and Growth Pact. As long as it can be attributed to exceptional circumstances, relaxing the rules may have some appeal – it heads off a showdown between Brussels and Italy that had been brewing for some time.  But it still seems to be construed as a temporary measure. Though these rules probably are unfit for the future – for a volatile Europe in which different states start from different positions – it is not clear how far Germany and the EU institutions really want to abandon them. Suspending rules due to exceptional circumstances underwrites the idea they will apply once again under normal conditions. That may be unrealistic, but it does not suggest a recognition that the rules are fundamentally faulty.


In your recent book, you warn against the perils of “the ascendancy of a governing mode centred on the logic of emergency” at the EU level. Was there any way in your view to tackle even such health calamity by ordinary politics rather than emergency mode?

Jonathan White is Professor of Politics at the LSE

Emergency modes of rule, though often associated with dramatic displays of power, tend to have their origins in some form of weakness. In the eurozone crisis of the early 2010s, that was the weakness of executive agents before the financial markets; in the migration politics of 2015/16, it was their weakness before far-right movements turning mass publics against them. In the Corona-crisis, it is first and foremost about the weakness of state capacity – underfunded, part-privatised and under-prepared health systems, and political institutions and bureaucracies where the voices of neoliberal economists still carry loudest. Generally speaking, the weaker the institutions, the more extreme and authoritarian the response to hard times.

In principle, these are weaknesses that could have been addressed, either by reforming individual states, or the international arrangements that shape and constrain them. Given the threat of a global pandemic was foreseeable and foreseen – it was ‘SARS2’, as French philosopher Alain Badiou has written, i.e. something not wholly unprecedented – one can assume that more ‘ordinary’ responses were possible in principle.  Some of the countries going into this crisis with relatively robust public services – e.g. South Korea, Japan, Sweden, Germany – are also amongst those to have held out longest against the most extreme measures and to have focused on social distancing and testing. But were such alternatives available to all countries?  In a global system of financial capitalism, combined with regional constraints like those of the eurozone, it is much easier for some countries than others to make adequate preparation for extreme circumstances.  It is easier for some to borrow and invest than others. So minimising the recourse to emergency rule globally entails making major changes to the socio-economic system so as to equalise the capacity for preparation. And that itself requires mobilising to gain control over executive institutions at the national and supranational level.

In the meantime, let’s not forget there are different degrees of emergency response. There is a big difference between relying on lockdowns and travel bans (Italy, France, Spain) and going further to disarm democratic institutions (e.g. Hungary, and possibly some of the Anglo-Saxon countries).  Lockdowns and travel bans are amongst the more reversible forms of emergency measure: they can be terminated relatively easily, albeit they may have lasting social effects and set precedents.  An indefinite period of rule by decree, by contrast, allows a dominant executive to do what it wants.  Even in the unprepared situation in which many European governments have found themselves, they retain some degree of choice about how far to pursue politics in the emergency mode.  The same will apply as we move to a later phase of the crisis when the social and economic consequences loom larger than the virus itself.

Executive “super-power”, simplified procedures, weakening of parliamentary scrutiny, technologic surveillance. «Although extraordinary measures may be beneficial at a certain moment, the example nevertheless causes harm, because if one establishes the habit of breaking the laws for good reasons, later on, under the same pretext, one can break them for bad reasons», you reminded on the New Statesman quoting Machiavelli. What kind of democracy will we be left with once the “emergency” is over? And what can citizens do to ensure they will not be robbed of their freedom, representation and guarantees?

 How democracy looks after the Corona-crisis is clearly going to vary in different places, based on factors predating the crisis. What is happening in Hungary is not going to be replicated everywhere (though nor will it happen just in Hungary). One general tendency is likely to be the personalisation of political power. Emergency rule tends to encourage the concentration of power in the hands of individuals and the networks they form, marginalising formal institutions and procedures.  We are seeing this at the state level, also at the European. While personalisation tendencies may be most pronounced in periods of heightened exceptionalism, they leave habits, precedents and interpersonal ties that outlive the particular episode. Leadership based on a few key figures surrounded by trusted aides is likely to be a template that recurs, and in the spirit of the Machiavelli quotation, it is something that won’t always be put to good purpose. If leaders are seen to have acted successfully in the period of crisis management, they are likely to gain favourable reputations that boost their public standing and allow them to connect directly with mass publics with less need of intermediary organisations. The public satisfaction ratings for many world leaders are already well up, and some may stay up. Although in many countries the crisis response has not been led by those we tend to call ‘populists’, one of the legacies of emergency politics can be to make figureheads out of those at the top, and that can be just as difficult for collective forms of politics.

What can critically-minded people do? It is tempting to say: join a left-wing political party.  When institutions are being weakened, it is important that there are political associations beyond them that can challenge them and try to reform them. Given the significance of transnational structures, transnationalism matters here too. Certainly, parties and movements are themselves hit hard by the current situation – lockdowns render them invisible to their members, interrupt their efforts at mobilisation, and generally make them more ignorable. But one might hope that there are also positive opportunities here. The immobilisation of millions of people is also a chance to connect with them. Many people – those who are not rushed off their feet in frontline jobs – currently have an unexpected amount of free time and good reason to reflect on deeply political questions to do with public services, social inequalities, economic decision-making, and so on. Crises are moments of collective learning, even when people are physically separated, and one might see opportunities here for well-organised parties to follow up – opportunities to build on a process of political education already underway.


Unique circumstances as the ones we are faced with, as you acknowledge in your book, also offer democracies “the conditions of innovation, experiment, and creativity in politics”. What such fruitful changes do you see this crisis may bring to our societies?

Just as the Coronavirus has been the occasion for governing authorities across the world to embark on emergency rule, it has been the occasion for populations to press them to act in ways they might not have wished. As some governments – e.g. in Britain, the US, the Netherlands – toyed with policies intended only to minimise economic disruption and reassure the financial markets, they met with strong calls to act urgently for the sake of other things – public health, the availability of food, and the economic wellbeing of ordinary workers.  We might think of this as a form of emergency politics from below. Instead of shoring up the established structures of power and expertise in the manner of executive exceptionalism, this counter-politics of emergency entails disputing existing priorities and interests – showing for instance that the demands of an abstraction called ‘the economy’ do not always have to come first.

Tackling climate change is going to need this kind of resetting of priorities. We have already seen forms of emergency politics from below here – ‘Extinction Rebellion’ is the obvious example, with its calls for mass action and civil disobedience. But before the Coronavirus it was uncertain whether political institutions could ever be made responsive to such concerns. It is at least now clear that there is a battle to be fought, even in adverse conditions.  Recent events have been a useful rehearsal for the conflicts to come.


Photo: Karim Sahib / AFP

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