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Conceptual politics and resilience-at-work in the European Union

This article was written by Jonathan Joseph and Ana E Juncos
This article was published on

Jonathan Joseph and Ana E Juncos discuss the key points from their new Review of International Studies (RIS) article. 

The concept of resilience continues to proliferate across a range of international organisations and government departments. It has also become central to the EU’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent recovery process, as well as Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. In this article, we argue that this is something of an illusion. We argue that an examination of the EU’s new security strategy – the Strategic Compass – as well as its Covid-19 response – the Recovery and Resilience Facility – reveals a much more conservative and restrictive understanding of resilience that jettisons the concept’s more ‘transformative’ (but often neoliberal) elements in favour of traditional notions of protection and robustness.


Various factors, including structural shifts, hegemonic power struggles, and existing institutional path dependencies and competing interests, help explain this outcome. In terms of our conceptual analysis, this move represents a shift from the idea of resilience as transformative back to a safer, more descriptive understanding and can be said to be a common feature of concepts at work within international institutions. The central paradox we identify is that the more complex the problems faced by the EU, the more it turns away from the logics of complexity present in the idea of resilience.

In previous work, we have argued that the adoption of the EU Global Strategy (EUGS) in 2016 epitomised a dynamic new ‘resilience turn’ that matched similar developments at the international level. However, rather than opening up a new phase of foreign policy as promised in the EUGS, the Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war have resulted in the EU turning back in on itself and abandoning the radical aspects of resilience that emphasise its multi-layered and non-linear dynamics and its transformative character.

We draw on IR theory to examine the conceptual side of these changes. In particular, we drawn on recent arguments about concepts at work and use this to ask questions about how concepts emerge, acquire meaning and change over time in relation to particular challenges, practices, institutions and actors. In addressing the question of how the EU’s use and understanding of resilience has shifted in response to external events, we address the wider question of how crises in global politics often produce a conservative turn in the way things are understood.


Specifically, we argue that the effects of global politics and recent crises on the EU’s concept of resilience has been to change it from an ambiguous but highly ambitious notion to a narrower one, mainly concerned with internal security. However, this narrowing has also worked to empty the concept of meaning, turning it into something like a buzzword or slogan. As a concept at work, resilience helps sustain the EU’s current practices, particularly in relation to the general feeling of crisis and vulnerability, but it does so in a bland and uninspiring way, a conservative and reactive approach that prioritises internal security over external opportunity.

To understand the conceptual politics surrounding resilience and how they have shaped its meaning over time, we also draw on the literature on the role of ideas in public policy, and particularly on the notion of ‘coalition magnets’. In line with this idea, we argue that the emergence of resilience can be explained because it was used by individual policy entrepreneurs as a coalition magnet due its capacity to draw support from diverse constituencies and groups at a time of epistemic uncertainty. In the case of the EU, it was Nathalie Tocci, an IR scholar and Special Advisor to the EU’s High Representative, who emerged in this role. This broader, but also more ambiguous notion of resilience was not just essentially contested in a linguistic way, but also in practice revealing political struggles at the heart of EU foreign policy.  However, over time, this constructive ambiguity has given way to a narrower definition which reflects changes in the external context, but also power coalitions and institutional path dependencies. In this way, this article not only contributes to uncovering the political functions of the concept of resilience ‘at work’, but also to shed light on the lifecycle of a coalition magnet.

Our conclusion is that the current situation is mainly about the EU building its own resilience. Active and dynamic ‘policy entrepreneurship’ has given way to a more cautious and conservative use of resilience. As the EU’s understanding of resilience as a foreign policy strategy diminishes, so it is increasingly used to describe the recovery task at home. This also suggests a move from external to internal resilience-building. In putting their case, the EU’s ‘policy entrepreneurs’ have chosen a bland form of clarity over the more dynamic promise of ambiguity. The current crises have paradoxically given the concept both greater prominence and lesser significance.

Want to know more? You can read the full article at DOI:

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