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Climate, conflict and COVID-19: How does the pandemic affect EU policies on climate-fragility?

This paper explores the implications of COVID-19 on relevant EU policies and strategies that address the climate security nexus, focusing on three regions: the Sahel, North Africa, and Western Balkans.

Policy Brief

Published on 7 December 2021

The links between climate change and conflict have been well-documented in recent observations and academic literature: far from being causally direct, these links often depend on specific conditions and occur through certain pathways (Koubi, 2019). For example, conflicts have been found to be more likely in areas with poor access to infrastructure and facilities (Detges, 2016), or where government distrust and political bias are prevalent (Detges, 2017). As such, climate change has often been described as a ‘threat multiplier’, making it imperative for security and development actors to consider these fragility risks collectively in their policies and strategies.

In addition to the expected impacts of climate change on the European Union (EU), such as increasing temperatures, extreme weather events or rising sea levels, climate change also has “direct and indirect international security impacts” for the EU’s foreign- and security policy (Council of the European Union, 2016). These affect for example migration, food security, access to resources and socio-economic factors that possibly contribute to disruptions (ibid.). The resulting fragility may affect the EU by contributing to changes in geopolitical power dynamics, whilst at the same time needs for support in neighbouring and partner countries could increase (Brown, Le More & Raasteen, 2020).

The EU has increasingly acknowledged climate-fragility risks over the last years, as is evident from several key foreign policy strategies, agreements, and decisions. The European Green Deal, for example, aims to cushion climate and environmental impacts that may exacerbate instability (European Commission, 2019). At the regional level, individual policies underline the links between climate impacts and security in partner regions, such as for the Sahel (Council of the European Union, 2021a) and the Neighbourhood (EEAS, 2021a), stressing the importance in tackling those risks.

To that end, the EU has been at the forefront in providing multilateral support for its partner regions, through its various instruments related to climate, environment, development, and security. According to official EU sources, EU funding for official development assistance (ODA) rose by 15% in nominal terms from 2019 to €66.8 billion in 2020 (European Commission, 2021a). Furthermore, the share dedicated to climate action is also growing: the EU initiative Global Climate Change Alliance Plus (GCCA+) received an additional €102.5 million for the period 2014-2020 compared to the previous phase 2004- 2014 (European Commission, n.d.). Looking ahead, the EU’s recently approved Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021-2027 is set to provide €110.6 billion in funding for external action and pre-accession assistance to its Neighbourhood and rest of the world (European Commission, 2021b).

Despite the increased recognition of climate-related fragility risks in EU policies and the funding committed to climate action and international development, implementation of concrete measures to address these risks are lagging behind, with only a handful of EUfunded projects addressing climate-fragility risks (Brown, Le More & Raasteen, 2020).

Compounding these challenges is the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the current vaccine rollout worldwide, and with some countries seeing a potential end to the health crisis, the pandemic has taken – and continues to take – its toll in many parts of the world. The unprecedented nature of COVID-19 could ultimately make it more difficult for the EU to address the impacts of climate change on fragility and security in its partner regions. In other words:

How does the pandemic affect the EU’s ability to address climate-fragility risks in its neighbourhood?

To answer this question, this paper will explore the implications of COVID-19 on relevant EU policies and strategies that address the climate security nexus, focusing on three regions: the Sahel, North Africa, and Western Balkans. These regions were chosen for geographical representativeness (i.e., being the EU’s southern and eastern neighbouring regions), as well as being priority regions for EU external action, and, in the case of the Western Balkans, for EU accession.1 The remainder of the paper is structured as follows: Section 2 outlines, in general terms, the impacts of the pandemic on the political priorities and ability of the EU to address climate-fragility risks. Section 3 explores, for each focus region, how the pandemic affects key objectives of EU policies aiming at reducing climate-fragility risks in that region. Section 4 provides several recommendations on how the EU can better address the interlinking risks associated with climate-fragility and COVID-19.