Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
The current economic challenges facing Western economies are greater than anything we’ve seen in living memory, and they hold out the prospect of era-changing political turmoil.
The two quick body blows of the pandemic and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine in rapid succession have not only left European economies reeling, but they’ve arguably exposed the wishful thinking of policymakers and leaders who were insisting for much of this year and last that inflation would be transitory, and everything would snap back to pre-pandemic normal.
That was never going to happen.
Governments are never perfect; they can’t get everything right. But as the blows have landed in recent years, European leaders have all too often been leaden-footed, offering band-aids for long-term problems, or allowing themselves to be trolled into agreeing on fanciful policies that are inadequately thought through and planned. As a result, the West is now mired in a new, terrifying normal of great instability, uncertainty and impoverishment, one partly manufactured by Putin’s Russia and President Xi Jinping’s China, which both leaders are eager to exploit.
This, in turn, has raised a crucial question of competency, undermining public confidence in the institutions of government. And as energy bills start to skyrocket and cost-of-living continues to soar, those same leaders must now be careful in how they handle those who feel abandoned and desperate.
This week, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki highlighted this question of competency, saying, “No matter how we assess the EU, one thing is certain: its decision-making process, especially in a situation where external circumstances are changing fast, is very slow.”
Meanwhile, earlier this year, the Edelman Trust Barometer found that public trust in governments running the world’s democracies has fallen to new lows. Conversely, and disturbingly, it also recorded rising scores in several autocratic states, notably China. “We really have a collapse of trust in democracies,” said Richard Edelman, whose communications group published the survey of over 36,000 respondents in 28 countries that was conducted last year — or, in other words, even before spiraling inflation and energy prices, and before the invasion of Ukraine.
All too often, what seems to be ever present in current policymaking is a failure to question assumptions, as well as a reluctance to encourage “devil’s advocate” discussions or game out third- and fourth-order effects.
And examples of this short-sightedness in governance abound. Britain’s energy squeeze and water shortage, for instance, has been compounded by a succession of both Labour and Conservative governments failing to plan for worst-case scenarios, resulting in a country that hasn’t built up energy storage capacity or built a new reservoir in 31 years.
Instead, the U.K. government blithely assumed it would always be able to secure cheap, abundant energy from the Continent and that British rain patterns would never alter.
On the Continent, meanwhile, wishful thinking has seamed French and German-led Russia policy.
The pandemic may have been a black swan event, but the invasion of Ukraine wasn’t. Not only was it predictable, it was predicted by United States policymakers and intelligence analysts. And Putin has telegraphed his revanchist thinking for years, even well before securing power. As a key adviser to then St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, he’d made no secret of his disgust at the break-up of “historical Russian territory.”
Fast forward to the aftermath of the military foray into Georgia, the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the testing of new weapons in Syria, and a smaller-scale invasion of Ukraine — in addition to his frequent grievance-filled speeches about the dissolution of the Soviet Union — and European leaders still remained highly reluctant to accept warnings that Putin’s massing of troops on the border of Ukraine was no feint.
It is true that Western powers did move quickly with oil sanctions after the offensive, but even then, they still weren’t thinking through the immediate repercussions. In hindsight, a delay may have been more sensible, as Russian oil tycoon-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky noted to POLITICO, arguing the bloc should have secured alternative oil supplies before the embargo, or considered another strategy entirely, such as slapping tariffs on Russian energy.
Now, the eye of the storm is approaching, and governments and policymakers have arguably been lagging behind in responding to the inevitable consequences of highly predictable energy price hikes for householders and businesses. By comparison, during the pandemic, they strove to cushion lower-income and rural populations from the economic misery of lockdowns, partly to head off any populist backlash, offering financial support rather quickly.
Some governments moved quicker than others — Italy’s outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi spent much of his last months in office traipsing around North and Sub-Saharan Africa, securing alternative gas supplies for his country, pulling off what has been described as a miracle: While the country’s dependence on Russian gas hovered around 40 percent at the start of the war, it’s now around 10 percent.
Others have been much slower to react, despite clamor from homeowners and businesses who have been hit by rising energy costs since March.
Britain has been notably driftless on the crisis, although that appears to be belatedly changing now that the ruling Conservatives have concluded their interminable leadership contest. And EU countries are only now getting down to the details of how to rein in or cap energy prices, or cushion voters who have already been struggling with a broader cost-of-living squeeze, still mired in the consequences of the pandemic.
But isn’t this all still too slow?
Certainly the 70,000 or so Czechs who protested in Prague last weekend thought so, calling for the resignation of the country’s center-right coalition. “The aim of our demonstration is to demand change, mainly in solving the issue of energy prices, especially electricity and gas, which will destroy our economy this autumn,” event co-organizer Jiri Havel told local media.
In response, whether wittingly or not, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala accused protesters of acting on behalf of the Kremlin. “It is clear that Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns are present on our territory and some people simply listen to them,” he said.
Maybe so. Maybe some are orchestrated by Russian disinformation. Putin certainly hopes to manipulate Europeans and has been gloating about the prospect of Europe freezing this winter.
But as they face mounting clamor and likely social unrest this winter, European leaders ought to avoid labeling protesters or angry householders as Russian stooges, most of whom will simply be reacting to astronomical energy bills, trying to fathom how to cope with cold, hard economic reality, rather than worrying about geopolitics.