Europe in the World

Partnership with the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency

Spotting 'the next one coming' - the EU's role in risk assessment - Workshop

9 November 2011

The European Policy Centre (EPC) and the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) co-sponsored a workshop to study the challenge of assessing threat and risks at the European level. The EU is progressively raising its ambitions to manage the major risks facing citizens and societies, aiming for member state contributions to a ‘cross-sectoral overview of the major natural and man-made risks that the EU may face in the future’ to guide European cooperation by 2012. Yet many questions remain, including: What is the added-value of a European approach to risk assessment? What kinds of processes are needed, at national and European levels, to produce effective and practical common risk assessment? What will be the outcome and use of a European level risk-assessment?

On hand to discuss this increasingly high-profile topic were a number of senior practitioners, including Helena Lindberg (Director-General of the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency), Claus Sorensen (Director-General, DG ECHO in the European Commission), Christina Scott (Director of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, UK Cabinet Office), and Alois Sieber (Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen, Joint Research Centre). The event, which brought together the research and practitioner communities, was chaired by Josef Janning (Director of Studies, European Policy Centre) with assistance from Mark Rhinard (Senior Research Fellow, Swedish Institute of International Affairs).

Participants turned first to the question of value-added in a European approach to risk assessment. They argued that the EU’s role could be to spot what national governments might miss – namely vulnerabilities within cross-border infrastructures. These are difficult to uncover, however. Discussants thus identified the production of high-quality analysis and ‘interdependence intelligence’ as something the EU could provide to add value to national efforts. Of particular importance, participants agreed, was the reality of ‘black swans’ and the need to assess risk at the European level over  the long-term, since national governments are usually ‘chasing the last disaster’ when mapping future risks.

Christina Scott stressed the link between risk assessment and policy making arguing that assessments had to be presented in a form possible for policy makers to absorb.  Discussion then focused on the question of which processes of risk assessment are necessary for an effective European approach. Several participants argued that national procedures for risk assessment (many of which are underdeveloped) must be synchronized with a European level approach capable of drawing together risks assessments across EU policy areas. This formidable task was highlighted by Claus Sorensen, who argued for a ‘step-by-step’ approach to ensure quality analysis and meaningful synthesis across sectors and governance levels. Sorensen also stressed the need for member state commitment: “We do not have an awful lot of risk assessment expertise in Brussels. We really need to find ways of engaging member states in this area.”

The EU could help national governments by providing consistent guidelines for conducting risk assessments. Further to that point, discussion revolved around the idea of developing analytical models and methods that national governments could use –and which might improve consistency amongst national risk assessments. Some participants suggested the use of ‘European risk scenarios’ – not unlike those already being produced in Brussels – to serve as starting points for national risk assessment efforts.

The final question – regarding the purpose and use of a European risk assessment – was tackled after lunch. Helena Lindberg argued along the lines of different levels of ambition for the future work. One possibility was to aim for a more general cross-sectoral overview of European risks with no strong links to EU policy making. A second more ambitious option, would be to strive for an EU risk management process whereby EU risk assessments would be linked to some form of EU capabilities program, mapping available EU instruments and policies in relation to major risks and including also assets made available by member states, as well as more significant initiatives in the area of prevention. Christina Scott confirmed that the UK government uses their National Risk Assessment for planning and prioritization of government policies.

Alois Sieber noted that an EU risk management process should lead to risk reduction efforts, the natural follow-on from an assessment analysis.  He also noted that member states need to change their mind-sets in terms of assuming a larger responsibility for risks and vulnerabilities running across borders and policy areas. Reporting from the recent Space Weather Awareness Dialogue, organized by the Joint Research Center, he described some of the very serious consequences of a worst-case scenario based on a severe geomagnetic storm.  Consensus converged on the fact that a risk assessment process focused only on single sectors and which failed to stimulate policy change would be a missed opportunity.

The workshop closed with a summary of ‘next steps’ by Mark Rhinard. He noted the importance of bringing attention to the many different calls for risk assessment across the EU’s policy areas, to ensure complementarily rather than continued fragmentation. The objective formulated in the Commission’s communication, “The internal security strategy in action”, calling for a coherent EU risk management policy by 2014, should guide current efforts. The EU, he summarized, must gain the trust of national governments and prove practically useful for their own risk assessment processes. The effort at the EU-level to produce a cross-sectoral overview of risks during 2012 is an important first step. The EU contribution should focus on gradually building an actionable knowledge base and analytical frameworks for understanding what national governments sometimes ignore: cross-border risks and poorly understood vulnerabilities in cross-sectoral infrastructures.  Finally, he encouraged continued cooperation between researchers and practitioners to improve mutual understanding of risks.

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