In Europe, emergency politics has become unexceptional

PLATO project |

After several systemic crises in a decade, emergency politics has taken hold in Europe. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and later the Covid-19 pandemic, governments have responded with exceptional measures. Along the way, they have accumulated extraordinary powers. We might be tempted to think that this form of politics is the natural consequence of crisis-fighting. Yet the rise of exceptionalism is only a symptom of a more enduring crisis of party democracy. Simply put, partisan politics has become more difficult to deliver in contemporary democracies. As a result, less conventional forms of politics are gaining ground.

In the wake of several systemic crises, emergency politics has become a common feature in European politics.

The world is short of many things these days, from cars and petrol to microchips and building materials. But it has had no shortage of crises lately. In 2008, the global financial crisis shook the world economy with catastrophic consequences in terms of economic damage and job destruction. Barely a decade later, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought entire countries to a standstill. Its devastating effects are still being felt across the globe and threaten a new wave of infections.

In Europe and elsewhere, governments have responded to these crises with exceptional measures, thanks in part to the extraordinary powers they have claimed for themselves. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, for example, governments bailed out ailing banks and implemented massive austerity policies amid popular protests. Recently, national executives have adopted other extraordinary measures to fight the pandemic, from paying workers’ wages to rolling out mass vaccination programs at short notice.

Exceptional measures for exceptional times?

These “exceptional measures for exceptional times”, as former European Commission President Barroso once put it, have had a lasting effect on contemporary democratic politics. Actions departing from conventional practice are presented as necessary responses to exceptional threats. Sovereign rescue packages and constitutional reforms have been rushed through parliaments and justified on survival grounds. Unprecedented policy measures are being passed by executive order. Emergency politics has become a persistent feature of European politics.

As part of my doctoral research, I have studied some relevant implications of this exceptionalism. This form of politics has both institutional and discursive manifestations. Institutionally, exceptionalism expresses itself in the abuse of extraordinary executive powers. Often, governments use these powers to pass far-reaching measures through emergency procedures, circumventing debate and negotiations in parliaments. As a political discourse, exceptionalism relies on hyperbolic and alarmist language. It appeals to emergencies and exceptions to justify political action. It presents urgent decisions that go beyond the usual as inevitable. Typically, exceptionalism takes the form of “decide now, act immediately, explain quickly, and validate later”, as scholar Julia Black expresses it.

Investigating the governments’ responses to the Great Recession, I found that governing parties extensively appealed to exceptionalism to justify many of their economic responses. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the Labour government relied on exceptionalist appeals to justify the nationalisation of four banks. Similarly, the Conservative-led Coalition invoked a fiscal emergency and a Greek-style scenario to pass the 2010 ‘Emergency Budget’, which sanctioned the most ambitious fiscal austerity programme of the G7.

In Spain, another country that had left- and right-wing governments during the crisis, emergency politics also gained momentum. From the abrupt turn to austerity by the social democratic government (PSOE) in May 2010 to the bank nationalisation carried out by the conservative cabinet (PP) in 2012, both governments justified controversial choices on exceptionalist grounds. But the Spanish case is particularly revealing in another respect. The extensive use of decree laws to pass far-reaching measures has become a major institutional manifestation of exceptionalism. Originally conceived in the Spanish Constitution as an exceptional instrument for extraordinary situations, the decree law has become a common legislative tool in recent years.

Between 2008 and 2014, the two Spanish governments passed 121 decree laws, 60 per cent of which were directly related to their economic crisis responses. Figure 1 shows the relative percentage of decree laws over the total number of laws in each legislature, a good indicator of ruling parties’ reliance on this legislative tool. The two legislatures with the highest relative use of decree laws coincide with the crisis period (the two rightmost bars in the graph): approximately one third of all legislation was passed using this extraordinary mechanism.

Ruling by decree: Relative use of decree-laws by Spanish governments (1979-2015). Source: author’s own elaboration from data compiled in Martín Rebollo (2015). Note: The indicator measures the relative percentage of decree laws for each parliamentary term since Spain’s transition to democracy. The bars are arranged in ascending order, starting with the legislature displaying the lowest relative use of decree laws and ending with the legislature with the highest relative percentage. Colour shows details about the party in government.

The endurance of emergency politics

But was this exceptionalism an exception? Fast forward a few years, and identical outcomes have been observed in the UK, Spain and elsewhere during the Covid crisis. Thus, following the initial outbreak of infections in March 2020, the British government announced an “unprecedented [economic intervention] in the history of the British state”. These were “unprecedented measures, for unprecedented times”, as the Tory Chancellor Rishi Sunak insisted during the public announcement. Quite unprecedented, too, is the number of decrees that the Spanish coalition government has approved during the pandemic. By the end of 2020, the coalition between the centre-left PSOE and the far-left Unidas Podemos had approved all kinds of measures by decree, breaking every historical record.

This exceptionalist rhetoric and the over-production of decrees have gone hand in hand with the accumulation of extraordinary powers. In Spain, several states of alarm have been declared and later challenged by the Spanish Constitutional Court. In the UK, the government has used the pre-existing Public Health (Control of Disease Act) 1984 and new fast-tracked legislation, the Coronavirus Act 2020, to claim sweeping emergency powers to manage the pandemic. The Spanish and British governments could not be more ideologically opposed, yet they have ended up governing the pandemic alike.

In a way, this is unsurprising. In the face of an unprecedented crisis, unprecedented measures follow, regardless of which party is in office. And living through several crises in a decade might explain the persistence of politics in the emergency register. Yet this form of politics has had lasting consequences on the quality of democracy and on the identity of political parties.

The outlasting effects of exceptionalism

In countries such as Spain, legislative constraints on the executive have weakened and government accountability has suffered as a result, as shown by the Varieties of Democracies (V-Dem) indicators. Across Europe, many exceptional measures have outlived the emergency that initially justified them. From the way banks are supervised to fiscal constraints, these reforms have reshaped entire regulatory systems with little public scrutiny.

More significantly, many of these measures are at odds with the political identity of the parties that adopted them. In the last decade alone, we have seen conservative parties nationalising private banks with public funds and paying workers’ wages; liberal parties, once committed to “tax-cuts-always-work”, raising taxes across the board and creating new ones; and social democratic parties slashing public spending and cutting public pensions.

Understandably, parties’ choices are no longer self-evident to their supporters and voters. As exceptionalism takes hold, government action ceases to reflect distinctive ideological commitments. For in the emergency register, different parties act and sound increasingly alike.

This piece builds on the author’s PhD work, published as PLATO Report 3: Constrained partisanship: A comparative study of policy choices and party discourses in the British and Spanish crisis experiences (2008-2014).