Shaping a Way Ahead in European Crisis Management: Leveraging the COVID-19 Crisis

By Robbin Laird

When I was last in Denmark, I had a chance to talk with Hans Tino Hansen, the CEO of Risk Intelligence, after the conference they had sponsored on and hosted by the Atlantic Danish Atlantic Treaty Organization focused on “Threat Perception 2018: The Northern European Perspective.”

A key element for shaping the way ahead highlighted by HTH was the importance of being able to manage effectively in a crisis.

We then discussed the key challenge of reshaping civil structures that actually can address crisis management of the sort necessary to deal with the wider spectrum of Russian tools as well. 

For this we need a system of crisis identification and to establish robust procedures for crisis management.

“A crisis can be different levels.

“It can be local, it can be regional, it can be global, and it might even be in the cyber domain and independent of geography.

“And, we need to make sure that the politicians are not only able to deal with the global ones but can actually also react to something lesser.

“Who knows when a crisis is a crisis?

“Is it when X amount of infrastructure has been attacked by cyber-attacks?

“Is it when X amount of public utilities have been disrupted and for how long that defines the nature of a crisis?

“This certainly calls for systems and sensors/analysis to identify when an incident, or a series of incidents, amount to a crisis”.

“Ultimately, that means that the politicians need to be also trained in the procedures necessary in a crisis similar to what we did in the WINTEX exercises during the old days during the Cold War where they learned to operate and identify and make decisions in such a challenging environment”.

Certainly, COVID-19 highlighted the need for crisis management to be taken much more seriously as a core competence for governments, both in terms of national policy, and cross-national planning to able to provide for capabilities needed in a crisis as well as to build out trusted supply chains.

At the end of April 2020, we had a chance to talk, this time by phone, about shaping a way ahead in the anticipatable post-COVID 19 world.

Hans Tino Hansen: Even with regard to defense stocks, Denmark, like many nations, has acted on the assumption that when a crisis comes, we can get access to the supplies we want through the free market and just in time.

“The problem is that when a crisis comes, one of the first thing that happens is a significant disruption of supply chains, and nations will focus on providing for their own needs, and not worrying primarily about their role in the global marketplace. We have certainly seen that with the COVID-19 crisis.”

Question: Certainly, COVID-19 has highlighted supply chain security. But how realistically are nations, notably, smaller ones be able to do this?

Hans Tino Hansen: Clearly part of the answer is to stockpile what are predictable needs. Finland has never deviated from such a strategy; Sweden and Denmark in the Cold War had a policy similar to Finland; but we have abandoned the Cold War stockpiles, and we have seen the result.

“But the broader problem is that with regard to the wide variety of crises which could occur, you do not always know where the supply chain weakness can be found.

“You don’t know which country will close down its production.

“You don’t know who is going to close down his production lines.

“You don’t know where shipping cannot operate anymore.

“There are a lot of things in play here which makes things a lot more complicated than many people would have thought before COVID-19.

“And if we compare this to what would happen in times of armed conflict or a major international crisis, then a similar set of challenges would play out.

“Another part of the answer is to develop and test alternative production capacity including 3D printing options and changing existing high- and low-tech production lines.

“However, while alternative production lines may be able to assist with certain military and medical equipment for the two scenarios above, it will not be able to produce SM-2 missiles for navy frigates or CT scanners for the hospitals.”

Hans Tino Hansen attending the defense conference mentioned earlier in the article.

Question: So how best to proceed, again in a realistic manner?

Hans Tino Hansen: Clearly, a key requirement is to actually focus on the challenge, both nationally and with core partners.

“We need to address how to think through where the supply chain breaks are likely to happen and with what effects and to shape alternative paths to meet needs in a crisis.

“Focusing on such planning as a core government requirement along with core allies or trusted partners needs to come back out of the Cold so to speak or literally bring back some of the best aspects of Cold War thinking.

“We also need to abandon the notion that we may be able to get our supplies in a global market at any time.

“We need to shape collaborative structures as we used to have in NATO in the Cold War period where muscle memory had been shaped and we had a planning approach to leverage.

“Clearly, in today’s Europe, this a key opportunity for the European Union in terms of planning for contingencies and coming up with ways different nations could take primarily responsibilities for key stockpiles or short-term ramp ups of key materiels, not simply dictating policy that no one will follow.

“We need to draw upon the crisis management that was in place in the Cold War days, but to shape a new version that fits modern times and leverages modern technology, because there are a lot of capabilities that we can leverage today that we couldn’t do 30 years ago.”

It is interesting to note that there is indeed a crisis management commissioner in the European Union who is also the European Emergency Response Coordinator.

Janez Lenarcic, who is that Commissioner, recently noted:

“If everything in the EU crisis management system depends of voluntary solidarity of member states, then you get into difficulty when all of them are effected. That’s why we need to have system in place that would provide for effective solutions in such cases, which are no longer theoretical. I want to propose that the commission would be able directly to enter into procurement of equipment destined for European strategic reserve. Now [currently] we can’t.”

He envisages five to six regional hubs for such EU stockpiles. He added that the strategic stockpile serves as a “solidarity, ensured in advance.”

What the Commissioner has highlighted is the goal of reducing the EU’s vulnerability by promoting domestic production, diversifying supply chains, and building up strategic reserves.

This is a welcome change but Hansen’s point is crucial: it is about having core nations rethink their national positions but to do so by shared cross national planning, which can be done within the clusters of nations who work most closely together with the European Union as providing a framework for discussion.

But if the European Union tries to act like a supranational state, we only see nationalistic reactions, precisely what Hansen has argued needs to be overcome by enlightened cross-national planning.

See also, the Risk Intelligence website.