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


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. 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?

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