Scenario snapshots of a post COVID-19 EU

Recovery strategies shaping new normals

May 2021

Governments across the world have already introduced policies to tackle impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the EU has started to implement an ambitious recovery plan. With lockdowns being reimposed, assumptions about a ‘new normal’ are back. The next step is to think and plan for the future. Financial support is seen as key to making the world go round again. Drawing on discussions about options for recovery strategies, this brief gives three scenario snapshots of what could shape post COVID-19 normals in the EU and which territories may be affected more, or less.

The three scenario snapshots are a result of internal discussions within the Spatial Foresight team and stem from the team’s foresight zeal. The short scenario snapshots do not force individual solutions and are not presented as the only options, nor do they show every possible outcome of each pathway. They look to initiate debate and provide food for thought about how recovery strategies could construct ‘new normals’.

Money may help the world go round again…

The dawn of the new decade came with an unprecedented event. A ‘wild card’ that few were expecting and nobody was prepared for: A pandemic. The coronavirus, or COVID-19, in just the first quarter of 2020 rapidly changed every aspect of people’s lives. Governments across the world introduced policies to ensure public health (Böhme & Besana, 2020). Amid such exceptional times, it is vital to not only introduce policy responses to address the present situation, such exceptional times require exceptional commitment and planning. With lockdowns being gradually reintroduced around the world in response to a second wave of the pandemic and discussions about a ‘new normal’ recurring, it is time to seriously think about the future.

At the moment, nobody knows when the pandemic will end, with some arguing that a vaccine will bring salvation, while others propose that the virus may be permanent. Policy responses introduced at the beginning of the pandemic involved business lockdowns, furlough schemes, working from home and closing borders. All have heavily impacted economies and labour markets. One message has been clear: support for businesses and people is necessary. Although nobody yet knows the shape of the global economy in future, different recovery policies have been debated.

Discussions in Europe about tackling the economic consequences have ranged from supporting citizens directly including through a UBI, to Eurobonds, to a new European Union 2021-2027 recovery package. Meanwhile the United States approved a USD 2.3 trillion stimulus package that gives financial support to citizens. Finally, the EU decided on financial support for post COVID-19 recovery through the ‘Next Generation EU’ package and its Recovery and Resilience Facility. This will support businesses across the EU through grants and loans. All these discussions have one thing in common. They believe that money helps the world go round and hence financial support is key.

… or maybe not?

What could the EU look like if funding is dedicated to supporting businesses? Or what could happen if the same support was made available to citizens in the form of a UBI? Can we imagine what the EU would look like if there was no funding at all for businesses or citizens and it had to re-invent itself through a new vision? What developments could there be in all three cases and how would different places be affected? Territorial scenarios[1] can be a useful tool for exploring such pathways. This brief delves into three scenario snapshots, exploring how these very different recovery strategies would look and what implications they would have on EU territories. For this, three distinct, short, scenario snapshots, have been developed and their territorial implications outlined.

Gimme shelter – From a geography of spending to a geography of impacts. The first territorial scenario describes a future in which the EU has earmarked a substantial share of its budget to directly support EU businesses in an effort to revive the EU economic fabric. The scenario snapshot highlights the importance of business sectors and their resilience to such external shocks. The territorial implications indicate a geography of spending, i.e. where the funding is going. This geography of spending however, seems to polarise places benefitting from the support as opposed to places left behind, possibly increasing inequalities. This would lead to a geography of impacts.

You can’t always get what you want – The diversity of spending. The second scenario snapshot describes a future in which the EU has earmarked a substantial share of its budget to directly support EU citizens in the form of a UBI. This would be available to all EU citizens irrespective of age, employment status or financial situation. This scenario highlights the importance of people and diversity of spending, which has territorial implications. These vary widely, as socio-economic change depends on demographic characteristics, as well as people’s preferences and ambitions.

Shine a light – The need for vision. The third scenario snapshot describes a future in which the EU has spent all its COVID-19 emergency measures funding to combat a second wave of the pandemic. With no recovery plan to support them, EU citizens are organised in local communities. Slowly becoming autarkic, tribalism emerges, where cooperation and extroversion are limited. The territorial implications show a very regional to local pattern, which eventually leads to more fragmentation. To change this, the power to imagine a new vision becomes a light in the dark. Academics, think tanks, youth movements and intelligentsia across Europe initiate social movements where citizens realise that they need to redesign EU priorities for a future where cooperation should be forefront.

These three territorial scenario snapshots do not force individual solutions, nor offer every possible outcome of each pathway. Instead, they give general ideas which offer food for thought about the future recovery. Their aim is to initiate debate and provide inspiration for how or who could shape our ‘new normal’. Looking into different possibilities for future recovery strategies may stimulate better decisions today and balanced territories across Europe tomorrow.

To help imagine the implications, the three scenario snapshots look back from the future, as if the recovery strategies are being implemented.

by Kai Böhme & Maria Toptsidou

Read to full text in Spatial Foresight Brief 2020:14 

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