It is fair to say that 2021, just like 2020, was a crisis-ridden year. It turns out that 2022 is no better. Russia’s attack on Ukraine is an existential crisis for the Ukrainian people and significantly impacts the rest of the world.

In the past, EU politics has often been crisis-driven. Seemingly short-term choices in crisis mode turned into long-term strategic directions. We may well face another such moment.

The notion of ‘Zeitenwende,’ recently spelled out in more detail by Chancellor Scholz, comes to mind, but it is too early to tell. Instead, let’s ask more generally whether such crisis-driven politics and the ‘muddling-through’ that often comes with it are sustainable in the longer run.

The Sceptics & the Optimists

Over the past 15 years, the EU hasn’t been short on crises. The decade after the 2008 global financial crisis started with the 2010 Euro crisis, followed by the 2015 migration crisis, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, Covid-19 and now Russia’s war on Ukraine. Today’s EU was forged by the crises it endured, and, in hindsight, it hasn’t been so bad at handling them.

Despite the many crises Europeans have had to live through, 44% of EU citizens believe the EU is trending in the right direction – a value that has been consistently  rising since 2015. 53% continue to believe that we need closer European political and economic integration, while just 29% think we need less.

graph: direction of eu


Many, however, are unsatisfied with the EU’s crisis-led and seemingly ad-hoc approach: too little strategic foresight, too little visionary thinking and, perhaps most importantly, too little agency. The EU shouldn’t be merely in a reactionary role subject to larger global pressures but should sit in the driver’s seat instead. ‘Muddling through’ repeated crises and brokering (sometimes last-minute) compromises cannot possibly be it, the intuition goes. Or is it?

Political theorist David Runciman (2013) came up with the provocative hypothesis that this may, in fact, ‘be it.’ He argues that democracies’ tendency to ‘muddle through,’ despite their sometimes-messy appearance, is not a vice but a virtue. Reviewing some of the biggest crises of the last century, he concludes that ‘muddling through’ isn’t some form of extraordinary crisis mode but the modus operandi of advanced democracies.

This goes for complicated unions of states like the EU in particular. He believes that democracies’ ability to adapt on short notice is one of the key reasons they tend to outlive autocracies which lack such flexibility and have less margin for error.

Attempts to formulate grand visions and pin down what makes for a sound democracy, Runciman says, are futile and fail to consider that their major strength may be right before our eyes: flexibility and the ability to ‘experiment on the margins.’ Does that mean that we are going to be fine no matter what? Unfortunately, it does not.

‘The Confidence Trap’

First, the very reason that democracies have been so successful at muddling through crises in the past may give rise to a dangerous state of complacency that things will eventually turn out well again. Runciman calls this the ‘confidence trap.’ Politicians and the broader public become tempted to observe crises from a distance up until they become matters of acute urgency.

As such, democracies’ very success in the past increases their risk of failure in the present. Since Runciman published his book in 2013, this risk appears to have materialised.

Speaking of Europe, he wrote that “for most of us, democracy is still the only game in town.” This has since changed. For the first time since 2004, Bertelsmann Stiftung’s BTI index registers more autocratic than democratic states.

Out of 137 investigated countries, 67 qualify as democracies, while 70 qualify as autocracies. What’s more, the annually published 2022 V-Dem Democracy report lists Poland and Hungary, two EU member states, as two of the top five autocracies. In other words, democracies can and do fail and failing to realize this may make them more likely to fail.

This time is different?

Another problem that comes with drawing encouragement from the successful resolution of past crises is that it’s very hard to gauge whether this time is different (Runciman 2013). Crises do not always come in the ‘right’ dose –serious enough to trigger real change, yet without danger of getting out of control.

Experimenting in the wild does carry very real risks. Climate change is just one, albeit the most drastic, example. Most scientific evidence suggests that it is quite clear that ‘this time IS different.’ This moment doesn’t fit any of our previous crisis categories.

This crisis requires the very kind of pre-emptive action with which democracies have tended to struggle. Waiting out this crisis and only acting until it becomes visibly acute in all its consequences won’t work. Have EU citizens sensed this presumably weak spot? Asked about whether they believe autocracies are better equipped than democracies to tackle the climate crisis, 43% say yes.

graph: authoritarian states

Of course, this doesn’t mean that they wish to live in autocracies, nor that autocracies are better equipped to tackle climate change. In fact, there is evidence to suggest the opposite. What it may suggest, however, is that European citizens deem a kind of authoritative action necessary that liberal democracies have traditionally refrained from doing.

Many politicians understand that the time to act is now. And yet, gathering support for prediction-based politics isn’t easy. With climate change, however, waiting for predictions to come true would be too late. The act-on-acute-crisis-and-muddle-through approach won’t work.


Waiting for crises to become acute and tackle them in one big collaborative effort, as we so often do in the EU, may not necessarily yield worse decisions, but it also doesn’t guarantee better ones either. More problematically, however, reserving moments of genuine change to moments of acute crisis does tend to divert attention away from ongoing, maybe less flashy but no less dangerous, crises.

Take the EU’s in-house crisis on the rule of law and democratic backsliding. Prior to Russia’s war on Ukraine, Poland and Hungary were increasingly mentioned jointly as far as their rule-of-law issues are concerned. This has changed.

Their diametrically opposed reactions to Russia’s attack on Ukraine make it hard to lump them together on anything. While Poland has proved a key supporter of Ukraine, Orban’s regime keeps its close ties with Putin. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean much has changed with Poland’s rule of law issues.

On the contrary, several commentators cannot help but get the impression that Poland is exploiting one crisis to distract from another. As Ben Staley recently put it, “there’s a strategy to emotionally blackmail the EU into taking a softer line, (…) an attempt to refashion the discourse, to say: ‘We’re trying to deal with real problems; you’re just hindering us with all this rule-of-law stuff’”.

Most recently, the Polish government is trying to position itself on the moral high grounds by deliberately refusing to insist on an EU-wide distribution of Ukrainian refugees, just 7 years after they refused to take in almost any refugees during the 2015 migration crisis.

From major weakness to major strength and back again?

Lurching from one crisis to the next, and letting one’s politics be guided by them, risks obscuring the fact that previous crises hadn’t actually been resolved. One of the formative strengths of modern democracies may thus turn into one of their formative weaknesses in the longer run. Their ability and propensity to tackle the most acute crises first may push less ‘flashy’ or systemic crises further and further out.

Until that is, they turn into truly existential and unpostponable crises themselves. For the EU, issues with democracy and the rule of law in member states are one example. For the planet, the climate crisis is another.

What can be done?

So, what can be done? Considering that crises will continue to come our way and require our immediate attention, not much, it seems. However, realising that things can go wrong seems like a good mindset to adopt. Runciman’s ‘confidence trap’ may very well be real. At the same time, articulating grander strategic visions for the future is important too. Even if such visions, outshined by more pressing issues, may not be picked up on immediately, they tend to be picked up later.

Take some of the EU’s more structured reactions to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, whether that is better coordination and financing of defence, debates about (models of) EU enlargement and the unanimity principle in matters of foreign affairs. None of these are genuinely new ideas. They have repeatedly been floated and discussed before and are now on the top of the agenda.

Explicitly formulating such visions as genuinely European visions is just as important. For if they keep coming from individual member states, often the biggest and/or most vocal ones, the European Union runs the risk of camp building and potential division.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, muddling through must not be at the expense of transparency. If it does, trust is compromised and gathering support for far-reaching and drastic political decisions becomes very difficult.

eupinions is the platform for European public opinion of Bertelsmann Stiftung. Since 2015, eupinions surveys EU citizens’ public opinion on matters of European integration, democracy, globalization and people’s economic situation on a quarterly basis.

About the author

Hardy Schilgen is project manager at eupinions. eupinions is the platform for European public opinion of Bertelsmann Foundation. Since 2015, eupinions surveys EU citizens’ public opinion on matters of European integration, democracy, globalization and people’s economic situation on a quarterly basis.

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