A Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Feminist Reflections on the EU’s Crisis Responses

Date01 April 2021
AuthorAnnick Masselot,Heather MacRae,Roberta Guerrina
Publication Date01 April 2021
International Studies
58(2) 184 –200, 2021
© 2021 Jawaharlal Nehru University
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DOI: 10.1177/00208817211004026
A Crisis is a Terrible
Thing to Waste: Feminist
Reflections on the EU’s
Crisis Responses
Heather MacRae1, Roberta Guerrina1
and Annick Masselot2
As critics are quick to point out, the European Union (EU) has entered the crisis
phase of its evolution. It could be argued that crisis management is now the EU’s
new normal. Dealing with both endogenous (e.g., economic crisis and Brexit)
and exogenous crises (e.g., the migrant crisis and COVID-19), the EU is facing
a whole new set of challenges that has the potential to destabilize the complex
institutional balance that has maintained the process of European integration
over the last 70 years. In this environment of rapid responses, gender+ equality
has frequently been compromised. As we argue in this article, the implications
of this backsliding are grave not only for equality but also for the European
Union as a whole. Drawing on Walby’s concept of gender regimes and social
transformation, we consider current crises and the EU’s responses to those
crises to highlight potentially dangerous shifts in the European gender regime.
With crisis response increasingly supporting a neo-liberal gender regime, the
current state of perpetual crisis in the European institutions does not bode well
for the future of equality.
Gender regime, austerity, Brexit, refugee crisis
I have often used the Greek word ‘polycrisis’ to describe the current situation. Our
various challenges—from the security threats in our neighbourhood and at home, to
the refugee crisis, and to the UK referendum—have not only arrived at the same
time. They also feed each other, creating a sense of doubt and uncertainty in the
minds of our people. (Juncker, 2016)
2 School of Law, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.
1 Department of Politics, York University, Toronto, Canada.
Corresponding author:
Heather MacRae, Associate Professor, Department of Politics, York University, Toronto, ON M3J
1P3 Ontario, Canada.
E-mail: hmacrae@yorku.ca
MacRae et al. 185
In the words of former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the European
Union (EU) is in a state of ‘polycrisis’ in which multiple economic, financial and
social crises have come together, perpetuating uncertainty and discord among the
member states. Of course, crises are not new to the European integration process.
Webber (2019, p. 9) suggests that the EU has ‘spent much–perhaps as much as a
third–of its history in crisis’. However, the current crisis–this polycrisis–is
arguably fundamentally different. For the first time since the 1960s, the very
process of integration is at risk. Mainstream accounts have thus moved from
centring their analysis on institutions to the existential impact of the polycrisis on
the future of the Union, as evidenced by Brexit (Dinan et al., 2017). And yet the
assertion that the polycrisis is fundamentally new or different is problematic from
a feminist and intersectional perspective, and is indicative of gender blindness in
European studies (Guerrina et al., 2018).
Mainstream accounts start from a basic assumption that the poly-crisis is a new
phenomenon. However, this reading renders the lived experiences of minoritized
and marginalized communities invisible. Underrepresented communities in the
EU have been experiencing social and political marginalization, as well as
economic and social hardships, at least since the early 2000s. For many black and
minoritized women, the implications of austerity measures, political
marginalization and social exclusion in everyday life are akin to an ‘existential
crisis’ experienced daily (Bassel & Emejulu, 2018).
With this in mind, we consider the latest EU existential crises from a feminist
and intersectional perspective. Drawing on intersectional feminist accounts of the
crisis, we argue that the political and institutional responses to these multiple
crises have fundamentally undermined the most basic pillars of the EU: social and
economic cohesion. The EU was once recognized as a leader in gender equality,
with non-discrimination acknowledged as being one of the core principles of the
process of integration. There is now strong evidence that the crises have hollowed
out these commitments (Cavaghan, 2017; Cavaghan & O’Dwyer, 2018). Walby
(2020a) sees these crises as trajectory-changing for gender regimes as crisis can
undermine equality and pivot gender regimes from a path leading to greater social
inclusion and increased democracy to one defined by increased authoritarianism
and neo-liberal regimes (Walby, 2020a). This is where our analysis begins.
Looking at the evolution of the EU’s gender regime provides important, and
yet often overlooked, insights into broader societal change. Section one outlines
our theoretical framework. In the second section, we consider the extent to which
the current polycrisis of the EU has contributed to changes in the trajectory of its
gender regime. It is this changing trajectory that has the potential to undermine
gender equality and with it social and economic cohesion at the European level.
In the final section, we consider two crises: the 2015–2016 migrant and refugee
crisis and Brexit. The crises are themselves gendered and racialized. In addition,
the EU’s responses to these crises, are indicative of a broader shift in the EU’s
gender regime and threaten to undermine earlier progress towards social equality.

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