Commission opts for strategic foresight

 Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team 

Like most large organisations, the European Commission is using the tool of strategic foresight to look into the future before developing its new policies. The annual Strategic Foresight Reports aim to heighten policymakers’ awareness of megatrends and emerging developments. “The goal is to ignite strategic and inclusive EU-wide conversations on forward-looking European priorities” says the European Commission – but is this not also the mantra for the Conference on the Future of Europe where politicians and civil society are supposed to have EU-wide conversations on Europe’s future?  

Ensuring a swift and sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is the ambition of every government this year. For the European Commission the goal must also be achieved with its already defined priorities in mind, which in particular include green and digital transition. This means that the Commission must be well informed on the issues likely to surface on the horizon over the long-term.

The practice of strategic foresight is used by many organisations to help strengthen a culture of readiness through scenario planning and global insight tools and expertise. The Commission believes that through strategic planning it will be supported in designing future-proof EU legislation that serves both, the current needs and the aspirations of tomorrow. 

Foresight is the discipline of exploring, anticipating and shaping the future through the use of collective intelligence in a structured, systematic and systemic way. In practice, it involves exploring scenarios, identifying trends and emerging issues, and using them to steer better informed decisions and build dynamic policy coherence and allow for informed choices.

The Commission ensures the engagement of Member States within its foresight exercise, but not civil society organisations. Member States are represented in the EU-wide Foresight Network that brings together intelligence and foresight expertise from national administrations and the Commission, to foster exchanges and cooperation on forward-looking issues of strategic importance for Europe. The “Ministers for the Future”, designated by each Member State at the invitation of EU Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič meet informally at least once a year. Their main role is to discuss and agree, with the Commission, on the main strategic priorities for the Commission’s strategic foresight agenda, take stock of progress, discuss key issues of relevance for Europe’s future and agree on follow-up. This work feeds into EU strategic programming. The work of the Ministers for the Future is supported by a network of senior officials from the national administrations, who meet at least twice a year to prepare the ministerial meetings and follow-up on their conclusions in working groups.

The 2021 Strategic Foresight Report has specifically identified four global trends which are likely to have the greatest impact on the EU’s capacity and freedom to act in the coming decades. The first is climate change. As raised by scientists and civil society organisations, the current trajectory highlights that global warming is likely to surpass 1.5℃ in the next 20 years, and head towards 2℃ by mid‑century. This will have repercussions for already distressed global water supplies and on food safety and food security concerns.

The second global trend is the rapid increase in digital hyperconnectivity and technological transformations. This is influencing the way in which we work, rest and play, impacting society, the economy, labour markets, industry and the public sector. Whilst there will be new services and new offerings there will also be more threats, something the European Commission will need to address and manage in a timely manner. 

2020 data shows that 34% of the world’s population are living in countries where democratic governance is declining and only 4% in countries that are becoming more democratic, making pressure on democracy and values the third global trend. This is already evident and with continuing geopolitical contestation of models of governance, interstate polarisation and tensions linked to ideological differences expected to rise, any consequences for the EU will require the Commission to act. This could also include further “exits” from the EU, as with Brexit, but could equally be a reason for democratic EU neighbours to be taken into the fold of EU protection through accession.

Linked to geopolitical changes are also the shifts in global order and demography, which are listed as the fourth global trend. The world is becoming increasingly multipolar and there is a rebalancing which is moving the economic centre of gravity eastwards. The G7 countries, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States; currently have 40% of global GDP but the economic weight of the ‘emerging 7′, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, and Turkey; is beginning to increase, which may ultimately remove or at least diminish the influence of the European Union. Furthermore, population growth will remain uneven across regions, continuing in sub-Saharan Africa and stagnating in many advanced economies. The world’s population is expected to reach 8.5 billion in 2030 and 9.7 billion in 2050, while the EU’s population expected to fall to just over 420 million by 2050.

Strategic foresight exercises are invaluable in helping the Commission adapt and improve its priority setting as well as supporting the work of the EU President in developing the Commission’s Work Programme. However, whilst the Commission is producing a wish list of actions it should concentrate on as a result of its crystal ball gazing, a word of caution, strategic foresight did little to warn us of the financial collapse in 2008, or the Covid 19 pandemic of 2020! 

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