Critical crisis transformation
A framework for understanding EU crisis response
in The EU and crisis response

This chapter sets out a key conceptual notion that underpins the book. It expands the well-known conflict response framework of conflict management, conflict resolution and conflict transformation to encompass crisis response by the EU. Thus it examines how a framework of crisis management, crisis resolution and crisis transformation may apply to the EU and expands the framework even further by considering the notion of critical conflict transformation. In keeping with other chapters in the book, it argues that elements of EU crisis response have shown signs of being progressive and emancipatory and conforming to crisis transformation or critical crisis transformation. Yet, and again as seen in later chapters, the trend has been away from emancipatory-style crisis response towards responses that emphasise security and stabilisation.


This chapter seeks to provide a conceptual and theoretical underpinning to the book, and the themes explored in it are found in subsequent chapters. The EUNPACK project represented a mix of conceptual and case study work, with the conceptual work providing a common set of understandings that could be applied to the case study work. Drawing from theories of Peace and Conflict, the work was particularly interested in the extent to which a commonly accepted framework for understanding responses to conflict could be applied to how the EU responds to crises. The conflict response framework stretches from conflict management to conflict resolution and to conflict transformation, with conflict management the most conservative and conflict transformation the most ambitious. As part of the EUNPACK project, and as reflected in this book, our intellectual project has been to gauge the extent to which the conflict response framework can be extended to EU crisis responses (thus becoming crisis management, crisis resolution and crisis transformation). Moreover, our intention has been to go further and have a critical reading of the framework and introduce the notion of critical crisis transformation.

The purpose behind this approach has been to interrogate EU crisis response in a structured way, and to allow us to categorise these responses in terms of how they sought to deal with crises. In particular, and mirroring the conflict management, conflict resolution and conflict transformation frameworks, our aim was to ascertain to what extent EU crisis response was conservative and constrained (crisis management) or emancipatory and ambitious (crisis transformation).

Academic and policy research on the emergence of crises, and how to respond to them, has received significant attention over the first two decades of the twenty-first century (Callinicos, 2010; Calhoun and Derlugian, 2011; European Commission, 2012; Gamble, 2014; Walby, 2015; Kjaer and Olsen, 2016). Since then, the EU has found itself involved in a series of continuously morphing and deepening crises (Habermas, 2009, 2012; Giddens, 2014; Offe, 2016), and thus has had multiple opportunities for developing a sound understanding of effective crisis response. In keeping with the core–periphery aspect of EU policy, key concepts used in EU institutions represent an attempt to shape politics in crisis and conflict areas. The EU’s perspective of conflict tends to be of reduced severity and risk as the distance between the knowledge–power–language nexus of the EU framework of institutions and policies (i.e., the EU’s ‘normative’ and strategic power) and crisis locations increases (EEAS, 2016). A crisis is not measured by the severity of its damage to the affected society in the periphery but by its potential to affect the EU’s interests and objectives.

This spatial weakening of EU perceptions and policy has received increasingly sophisticated theorisation (Ferguson and Gupta, 1992: 6–23): policies designed for distant crises tend to be based on the perceptions and interests of the core habitus (Bourdieu, 1977) as well as the organisation’s capacities and goals, rather than on the dynamics or political claims of the peripheral conflict. Policy is discursively powerful in the core, practically weak where it is actually applied in the periphery, and often mismatched against local political claims. This undermines the legitimacy of EU engagement even as it becomes discursively more sophisticated. Much of the academic and policy literature focuses on security-related technical or bureaucratic issues, often without looking at wider issues of history, culture, epistemology, or methodological issues – all of which offer contextualised explanations of conflicts and the posture of responding institutions.

The EU crisis response (EEAS, 2016) shows evidence of different strategies depending on the geographical and political distance of the crisis context. Remote crises afford EU policy-makers the opportunity to avoid a ‘crisis of crisis management’, in which the very forces that could help to overcome a crisis are paralysed by the complexity and severity of the crisis itself (Offe, 2016).

This chapter investigates whether EU crisis management frameworks represent a weakening of the aims of EU peacebuilding as distance increases from its policy-making cores. In theoretical terms this is a reversal of what amassed empirical evidence suggests: that a shift from conflict management practices to critical forms of crisis transformation are required if the EU is to have a normative and legitimate foreign policy in conflict-affected societies around the world.

The EU crisis response approach could learn from conflict theory and its typology of conflict responses: conflict management, conflict resolution and conflict transformation. This latter approach, conflict transformation (and specifically a critical reading of it), holds the possibility of addressing the structural drivers of conflict and their networked, relational, local to globally scaled dynamics, and of the emancipation of individuals, communities and institutions. Accordingly, this chapter begins with a theoretical background that conceptualises crises and postulates that the EU currently has four related crisis response attitudes. This section suggests that a fifth crisis response stance, critical crisis transformation, which draws on critical theories of peace and conflict, would actually be in keeping with the stated normative ambitions of the EU. However, it would require an engagement with new, context-sensitive and relational phenomena in international relations, increasingly understood to be crucial in peace and war. The next section of the chapter unpacks the conflict response models – conflict management, conflict resolution, conflict transformation and critical approaches to peace – in order to pave the way for a discussion of more advanced possibilities. We then look at a series of contemporary cases studies, including cases where the EU has contemporary strategic engagements in crises within its different circles of influence, such as Libya, Ukraine and Mali in order to examine the empirical nature of EU crisis management. We conclude the chapter by evaluating our conceptualisation of a critical version of this concept and policy framework.

Theory and concepts

Conflicts and crises are intrinsically linked but differentiated, among other factors, by positionality, subjectivity and politics. While its material conditions (scale, duration, nature and intensity of violence) allow conflict to be assessed or categorised even to the unaffected outsider, crises tend to lie in the eye of the beholder (a specific group, the state, the EU, NATO, the UN, and so on). Defined as events with the ‘potential to cause large detrimental change to the social system’ (Walby, 2015: 14), crises differ from conflicts in so far as only actors within the social system under threat are likely to identify those events as a crisis. Hence, war constitutes a crisis for conflict-affected populations, but not for countries that are far removed, unless crucial security or economic networks are affected. Given the high probability that conflicts will not be contained within national borders, regional or international actors tend to identify large-scale or persistent conflicts as crises if large-scale spill-over effects from a conflict occur or have to be expected. This de facto overlap between crisis and conflict implies that a distinction between the two concepts has to be based on an analysis of EU discourse and of the deployed interventionary toolbox. Within the EU, crisis response involves a distinct set of decision-making processes and institutions as well as access to specific resources (Bátora et al., 2016; Pietz, 2017).

Crises provide windows of opportunity (Gamble, 2014: 30) as the imminent threat tends to remove political, economic or democratic constraints on policy-makers. Defining a crisis and designing responses to it thus bestows power on policy-makers (Hay, 1996: 255). Once a crisis has been defined, a lack of constraints often precipitates a lack of proportionality between cause and consequence (Walby, 2015: 14), rendering crisis a make-or-break point for the legitimate authority of leadership (Gamble, 2014: 32). In the case of EU crisis response, the window of opportunity could be twofold: externally, the EU’s position in crisis response is relatively strengthened in comparison to a crisis-affected government. Hence, the onset of a crisis could facilitate previously blocked policies, if linked to offers of support. Internally, if distinct crisis protocols are established, response policies may be able to bypass the complex structures of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and its drawn-out process of mission deployment. This has recently come to pass in the form of Art. 28 (1) stabilisation actions, which may enable more flexible and effective approaches to crisis response under the authority of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy as well as the European External Action Service (EEAS) (Pietz, 2017).

Crises can be categorised by the sphere in which they emerge (e.g., economic, fiscal, financial, political, social, etc.) or their gravity (e.g., existential, structural, acute, contained, etc.). The former analytical approach might stress the interdependence of different types of crisis, describing one type of crisis as the consequence of another. By contrast, the latter approach hints at the level at which crises can be addressed. If a crisis is able to cascade through different spheres, its underlying causes might be of a structural nature. In politics, however, crises are often treated as isolated shocks, whose causes are narratively reduced to a containable and ultimately manageable threat often through political or security tools. However, intervention is based upon previous concepts, drawn of other events, carrying a range of biases which then create a blindspot for the analysis of the new problem (Roitman, 2016: 17–34).

In EU foreign policy, tensions between power, knowledge, and local claims have been dealt with in four main ways in the past:

  1. A realist strategy with its emphasis on maintaining centralised states with hard boundaries and a focus on security issues has been applied to the EU’s extended neighbourhood and beyond (e.g., in response to regime change in Libya) (Goldgeier and McFaul, 2001: 1–26). Here, European interests rather than norms and rights have been prevalent in the design of a crisis response strategy. Intervention in a crisis only occurs when threats or opportunities emerge within this international system (Burton and Dukes, 1990: introduction). In addition, humanitarian crises can prompt short-term crisis responses in the form of humanitarian assistance.
  2. A structuralist approach to material needs, equality, and the distribution of resources has been applied to the neighbourhood countries. This was based on the recognition that stark welfare and economic differences between the EU and its neighbourhood had fuelled migration towards the internal market and its promises of welfare and income opportunities. Structuralist intervention included the promotion of trade creation and assistance for governance reforms in order to stimulate development, as well as a half-hearted element of democracy promotion (mainly within the framework of trade relations), pointing to matters of structural violence (Article 2 in Galtung, 1969: 167–191). The EU European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) was constructed to help deliver stability and integration (in all but institutions) in order to create a security community of friendly, and reformist states on its periphery, but largely failed to do so. Its latest revision tones down integration and shifts its focus further towards stability, while progressive and emancipatory goals have never been part of the policy. Given that the EU’s neighbourhood is large and troubled – stretching from Ukraine to Syria and Libya – spill-over effects of conflicts in the neighbourhood may prompt crisis intervention. Crisis response in those cases would be limited to containment and stabilisation.
  3. As soon as countries were recognised as accession countries, they become subject to the liberal strategy of building democratic representation, implementing institutional reform, extending rights and development beyond the state, reflecting what Manners has described as the EU’s ‘normative power’ (e.g., Cyprus and its ‘europeanisation’). EU membership can only be achieved through a process of unilateral institutional assimilation as accession countries have to adapt to the Copenhagen criteria and the acquis communitaire. During the accession process, the EU engages through diplomacy, adjustment programmes and association agreements. Intervention in crises occurs when institutions and trade are significantly threatened or if crises spread towards the EU’s borders, threatening European stability (Manners, 2002: 235–258). At this stage, the EU rejects any responsibility beyond assistance for the stabilisation of crisis contexts.
  4. The critical, welfarist and social democratic approach is reserved solely for EU member countries. Within its geographical and political core, the EU’s institutional framework and its evolution reflects its Monnetist foundations in a system designed to promote solidarity between states, aiming at regional convergence and the extension of shared security, extended rights and material well-being. Crisis intervention is vital here, not only as a principle of solidarity1 but due to the interdependence of all economies within the internal market. Hence, any conflict, instability or large-scale disaster on EU territory is bound to trigger a crisis response. Interventionary practices are cemented by a broad range of public goods at the regional and intergovernmental level, which are closely linked to internal stability and external security (Whitman, 1998). This follows closely on from the experience of the evolution of UN peacebuilding from the 1990s onwards and more expansive forms of intervention and programming, which emerged as a consequence of its normative goals (Richmond et al., 2011).

These four options might not be mutually exclusive as the intensity of the crisis – or political interests – could trump the political and geographical distance to the EU. A very severe crisis within the extended or immediate neighbourhood, for instance, might require interventions traditionally reserved for inner-European crises. Normative stances within the European Council could equally overcome a clear determination of crisis responses. The case of Syria suggests that neither geopolitical nor normative concerns can push the EU towards decisive crisis response, however. A similar pattern was observed with the breakup of Yugoslavia. The more member states are of the opinion that the realist approach to crises is unacceptable, and that preference should be given to a liberal or social democratic approach, the more pressure builds for stronger EU crisis intervention outside the borders of the EU (especially once internal irregularities are settled). Hitherto however, the EU has not sufficiently developed institutions able to do much more than work with the UN and donor system, except in a few cases so far. It often claims to be pushing towards the fourth approach (above) in policy documents, but practice rarely has reflected this outside of its core states.

The limitations of these four key approaches has prompted interest in local ownership, micropolitics, resilience, and indigenous or traditional practices: in other words, the ‘local turn’, which is an attempt to engage with local political claims, to understand local politics better, and to establish more ‘authentic’ and just forms of peace (Mac Ginty and Richmond, 2013). As a result of the EU’s continuous confrontation with crises since 2009, a similar reconsideration of political strategies may occur at the European level.2 We argue that its crisis response approach could be usefully informed by critical theories in an interdisciplinary framework. Thus, our proposed fifth approach, critical crisis transformation, would draw in the latest critical arguments and evidence and involve:

  1. A blending of liberal-progressive and welfarist, feminist, post-colonial, post-structuralist critiques and approaches to the above four categories; a hybrid form of crisis response, predicated on the legitimacy that arises in localised politics, also connected (via relationality, networks, and mobility) to matters of historical and distributive justice (e.g. global justice) (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2012).

This critical crisis transformation position draws from the Peace and Conflict literature and the consensus reached therein that ‘desecuritisation’ can only occur through more subtle diplomatic approaches (mediation, negotiation, conflict transformation). This position recognises the pacific value of a multiplicity of factors (peacebuilding, democratisation, human rights, justice, gendered and environmentally sensitive responses) and points to the importance and salience of hybrid political orders (Boege et al., 2008; Albrecht and Wiuff Moe, 2015: 1–16).

Conflict response framework

The academic study of peace and conflict has – over a number of decades – developed a framework for understanding conflict and responses to conflict. The framework – consisting of conflict management, conflict resolution, conflict transformation and critical conflict transformation – provides a means of classifying responses to conflict (from conservative to emancipatory), the language used to justify the responses, and the types of actions employed. This section sketches the different traditions in the framework and finishes with critical conflict transformation, bearing in mind that we will develop the idea of critical crisis transformation later in the chapter.

Conflict management

Conflict management constitutes the first-generation approach to ending conflict, commonly equated with political realism. Conflict management has emerged from the realist tradition of statecraft and realpolitik (Kissinger, 1954). It rests on the assumption that conflict is somehow a natural or inevitable state of affairs and has a limited state-centric discourse that excludes non-state actors and issues. Relationships between disputants are to be balanced, controlled, or modified by the insertion and presence of third parties. This modifies the classic friend–enemy distinction in favour of an externally managed balance between disputants. This provides third parties with a significant resource (and can allow third parties to cast themselves as neutral and disinterested arbiters who do not have responsibility for the cause or maintenance of conflict) (Bercovitch and Rubin, 1992; James, 1994; Bercovitch, 1996).

Conflict management approaches aim at the production of a basic minimum order without overt violence, or at least an ‘acceptable’ level of violence minimally disruptive to the state and international system. The related literature is concerned with issues like neutrality and impartiality, trust, the timing and form of intervention (whether it is diplomatic, in the form of mediation, or coercive, in the form of military intervention). Indicative of conflict management approaches and their underlying ontological, epistemological and methodological frameworks is the literature on hurting stalemates and ripe moments (Princen, 1992; Zartman, 1982). This argues that there are windows of opportunity where conflicts can be settled through the production of a basic, negative peace (Galtung, 1998; Diehl, 2016). In this worldview, violent conflict is acceptable as long as it is contained, and sometimes calculations are made to enable violent conflict so as to change ‘facts on the ground’. See, for example, western ambivalence (if not support) for Croat and Bosnian military offensives in the run up to the Dayton Accords negotiations in 1995, or for Israeli actions against Hezbollah – and Lebanon more generally – during the 2006 ‘summer war’. Conflict management responses, and a tolerance of hurting stalemates, allow mediators, diplomats, and peacekeeping operations to mobilise (Zartman, 2003: 19; James, 1994).

Much of this literature focuses on the different generations of peacekeeping, and mediation as a diplomatic or quasi-diplomatic activity (Hammarskjold, 1958). The limited engagement via peacekeeping is usually based upon the fragile equation of state interests, issues, and resources, and often depends upon external guarantors, though it also recognised that elements of the liberal agenda – the capacity of international alliances, institutions and organisations – bring a semblance of order through international cooperation over coercion.

Conflict resolution

A second generation of debates and stances crystallised around the concept of conflict resolution (partly as a critique of conflict management’s limitations) (Dunn, 2004). This took a more ambitious stance on peace, leading to the notion of a ‘win-win’ or a positive peace, as opposed to conflict management’s negative peace approach (Galtung, 1998; Diehl, 2016). This approach perceived conflict to be psychological, sociobiological, or as a product of political, economic and social structures that deny or impede human needs (Isard, 1992: chapter 2). As such, it moved many thinkers away from notions of inevitable forms of conflict. It was specifically focused on an understanding of the root causes of conflict. From this perspective conflict arises out of a repression of human needs, and is a social (Azar and Burton, 1986: 29; Gurr, 1970) as well as a psychological phenomenon.

This was revolutionary in terms of conflict analysis theory in that it broke away from purely state-centric notions of conflict, pointing to its relational nature. Relative deprivation theory, for example, identifies a sense of injustice as a source of social unrest, and the frustration-aggression approach sees frustration as a necessary or sufficient condition for aggression (Dollard et al., 1939; Runciman, 1972: chapter 2; Berkowitz, 1993). Human needs theory offered a framework for understanding what caused conflict and how it might be resolved, derived from a civil society oriented discourse and aimed at constructing a positive peace in the context of transnational relations. This approach prioritised human needs over state security, structural violence, and the need for alternative forms of communication to be developed, pointing to engagement with local civil society organisations and a cobweb model of global order in order to negotiate a civil or social peace which would then trickle up to political elites to be implemented.

Human needs – identity, political participation, and security – are viewed as non-negotiable because they are founded on a universal ontological drive (Azar and Burton, 1986). From this assertion, it was a short step to the realisation that the repression and deprivation of human needs is the root of protracted conflicts (Azar, 1990: 9–12), along with structural factors, such as underdevelopment. This equated both development and civil society discourse with peace. Debates about conflict resolution evolved towards ‘multi-track diplomacy’, peacebuilding, and contingency approaches and connected with liberal arguments about human security and the ‘democratic peace’ (Macmillan, 2003: 19). These contributions to second-generation thinking also imply that conflict requires social, political and economic engineering on the part of third-party interveners to remove the conditions that create violence.

The underlying ontology of conflict resolution is heavily predicated upon the understanding that individual agency should and can be exerted to assuage human needs and lead to social justice. From a global perspective, this ‘cosmopolitan turn’ in conflict resolution (Jones, 1999) empowered non-state actors and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to assist in the development of peace based on the identification and allocation of human needs according to the voices of non-state and unofficial actors. Indeed, in providing a forum for the agency of individuals, and assuming that they will be in favour of a liberal form of peace, conflict resolution is also an inherently political approach that threatens elites who monopolise resources for their own alternative interests. Thus, conflict resolution while widely applied in conflict-affected societies from Cyprus to Northern Ireland, provides a radical perspective of a positive peace dependent upon the agency of the individual and civil society which is also both complementary and in tension with the acceptance of liberal norms. However, conflict resolution underestimates how entrenched structural violence or global injustice have become.

Conflict transformation

Conflict transformation can be regarded as the most emancipatory of the conflict management–conflict resolution–conflict transformation approaches to conflict. It pays more attention to the individual and the local, and believes that the structural bases of conflict can, and must, be addressed in order to truly deal with conflict causes and not merely conflict manifestations. Conflict transformation pays attention to issues of identity and believes that through 
self-examination, education and positive contact with the other, parties to a conflict can engage in reflective processes that consider conflict causation and maintenance factors. As such, conflict transformation places responsibility for addressing conflict on all participants – not just political or military actors. Unlike many other approaches to peace, it emphasises relationality and affect (Lederach, 1997). The whole-of-society approach makes conflict transformation potentially radical, costly and time-consuming. It is not merely about staunching conflict; it is about addressing the underlying factors. The radical potential of conflict transformation means that it is often regarded as an aspiration – a positive peace to be pursued once the negative peace of conflict management and conflict resolution have been reached. A full conflict transformation has not been attempted in any of the cases of crisis or conflict that are used as case studies in this chapter. Instead, parts of the conflict transformation agenda can be found in peacebuilding programmes and projects that form wider conflict response interventions. The conflict transformation agenda is particularly noticeable in people-to-people activities that seek to bridge inter-group divides.

Where it has been attempted, the conflict transformation has often been operationalised by international organisations and their proxies as part of complex multidimensional interventions. As a result, the good intentions of conflict transformation are often rendered into standardised and shallow formats that might use the language of rights and peace but are delivered in technocratic and limited ways. Conflict transformation, as operationalised as part of the contemporary liberal peace project, has a basis in a version of Kant’s democratic peace argument and its focus on democratisation (Call and Cook, 2003: 233–246), and thus elides into development and marketisation, and on the rule of law and human rights. It introduced the global framework of a sustainable peace, which often rested upon an implicit agreement between international actors, the UN, international financial institutions (IFIs), and NGOs, on a ‘peacebuilding consensus’ aimed at the construction of the liberal peace as a response to post-Cold War conflicts (many of which revolved around collapsed or fragile states in the terminology of the day). This argument has been extended in practice by the recent UN documentation on ‘sustaining peace’ (UN, 2018).

The peacekeeping operations in Namibia, in Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique and El Salvador seemed to offer the hope that a conflict-transformation-inflected peace could go beyond merely monitoring ceasefires and would instead contribute to the democratisation of failing and failed states. But UN missions, even versions that showed aspirations to become more emancipatory and expansive, became subsumed in the wider liberal peace, meaning that interveners (peacekeepers, NGOs, donors, and officials) were now required to focus on democratisation, human rights, development, and economic reform. This became the blueprint in Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, DR Congo and East Timor. Peacekeeping, and the complexity of tasks associated with it, became part of global governance, which now became the new imaginary of peace in the minds of policy-makers. In this way, liberal peacebuilding represented a multilevel approach, attempting to incorporate the local, state and regional aspects of, and actors in, conflict – thus moving beyond the top-down, elite-led approaches developed in conflict management and conflict resolution. Lederach’s vision of a people-centric conflict transformation became, instead, conflict transformation-lite or a hollowed-out version marked by compromise (Lederach, 1995). Certainly, international peace-support interventions sought to bring together a wider range of actors in peacemaking, including civil society, and sought to expand the range of concerns of peacemaking processes to include social, economic and development issues as well as security and politics (Lederach, 1997: 39). This approach to peacemaking had a trickle-down assumption, whereby it was thought that top-down mandates and the engineering of good governance processes and institutions would be gratefully received by populations and turn into a sustained peace.

Third-generation approaches gave rise to more comprehensive ambitions for peace, but also raised questions about the nature of the universal peace that they imply. The liberal peace requires multiple forms of intervention, which the theories of peacebuilding supply: UN peace operations, mediation and negotiation, development and humanitarian relief, and specialised reforms aimed to meeting international standards in areas from the security sector, the economy, the environment, border controls, human rights, and the rule of law. This effectively means that the liberal concept of peace revolves around the reform of governance, is highly interventionist, and has a rational and mechanical, problem-solving character. As Chopra argued (Chopra, 1996: 338), it engenders a mechanism whereby the UN, regional organisations, member states, and local actors, take control or monitor the instruments of governance (Chopra, 2000; UN, 2004; Carnegie, 1997: 2–3).

Yet, out of all UN attempts at democratisation since the end of the Cold War, around half had suffered some form of authoritarian regime within fifteen years. In addition, the role of IFIs has effectively driven economic structural adjustment and development projects through neoliberal strategies which have failed to provide the sorts of economic opportunities and welfare that would be expected within a liberal state (and indeed within the EU itself). In effect, liberal peacebuilding has been turned into a system of external governance rather than a process of contextual reconciliation. This indicates a failure to come to terms with the lived experiences of individuals and their needs in everyday life (Pouligny, 2006). There has emerged a gap between the expectations of peacebuilding and what it has actually delivered so far in practice, particularly from the perspective of local communities.

Critical approaches to peace

Critical approaches to peace represent a fourth generation of peacebuilding, which introduced new reflexivity and more relational dimensions into the discussion of a sustainable peace. In many ways they were faithful to the original aims of conflict transformation. It criticised peacebuilding, statebuilding and conflict resolution for being unable to overcome insidious practices of intervention upon host and recipient communities (Debrix and Weber, 2003: xv) and ignoring local claims and voices. It advanced a pluralist, critical and self-reflective approach (Patomaki, 2001: 732; Bourdieu, 1977) to peace, order and security, as well as a local turn (Mac Ginty and Richmond, 2013). Institutions, once moulded upon exported ideas of a state, had to be opened up to the cultural, customary dynamics of the local environment, and to have a beneficial impact on the everyday lives and needs of the post-conflict individual, as well as being cognitive of the external drivers of war. It pointed to issues of historical, distributive, social and environmental justice as integral to any sustainable form of peace.

This required a hybridised form of peacebuilding that allowed for mediation between the local and the international over peacebuilding praxis and social, political and economic practices that both deem plausible and acceptable (Boege et al., 2008) from which a large scholarly and policy literature has subsequently emerged (Richmond et al., 2011; Mac Ginty, 2011). A few significant hints of such an approach – for all its weaknesses – might be found in Northern Ireland, along with its EU Peace funding, which invested enormously in civil society, material improvement, and attempted to move away from the frameworks that fed nationalism and sectarianism (such as centralised power, territorialism, and hard borders). It is worth noting, of course, that this case was within the EU and this level of funding and attention would be difficult to replicate elsewhere.

A new crisis response framework

The categorisations outlined above (management–resolution–transformation–critical approaches to peace) have substantial levels of overlap and are best seen as a continuum, moving from the most conservative type of intervention (conflict management) to the most radical (critical approaches to peace). In complex peace operations, the first three types of intervention may be in operation simultaneously, or they operate sequentially. Transferring this conceptual progression to EU crisis management, the framework becomes: crisis management–crisis resolution–crisis transformation.

The elements of the tripartite framework resonate with the characterisation of EU interventions as realist, structuralist and liberal. We realise that any categorisation exercise will struggle when directed towards a complex and dynamic series of processes like EU crisis response. We see the categorisation exercise as a way of assisting conceptualisation, but not as a prescriptive straitjacket into which all aspects of EU crisis responses must fit. Instead, it is a way of sparking thinking about the normative ambitions of EU crisis response mechanisms and interventions, the interests that shape the translation of policy into practice, the rationalities and political economies that attend policy delivery, and the reception of policies once they hit the ground. This will help to examine the gap between institutionalist perspectives and critical peace and conflict perspectives. The latter encourages us to think about the reception of EU crisis responses on the ground and the extent to which they meet with agency, resistance and hybridisation.

Crisis management

Crisis management (CM) is the stabilisation or containment of a crisis, and is also often used as a generic term for all types of intervention in crises (Brecher and Wilkenfeld, 2000). It recognises that a crisis is on-going and aims to prevent further deterioration, contagion or spill-over into other forms of crises. The principal aim is limited: to prevent crises from spreading, destabilising regions or inflicting harmful repercussions on the EU. Crisis management works through short-term or limited-ambition interventions, but rejects long-term engagement with the underlying causes of the crisis, other than through balancing and stabilisation activities. Depending on the nature of the crisis, this can work at all levels, from elite diplomacy to on-the-ground activity involving a displaced population. There is much scope for humanitarian activity but less for complex political deals that may take time to negotiate. Hence, the crisis management toolkit of external crisis managers encompasses humanitarian assistance, budgetary support, mediation, donor conferences, border management missions, the establishment of no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors, while domestic crisis management may require ceasefire negotiations, security interventions, curfews and financial concessions. In prolonged crises, external crisis management can also stretch to sanctions, and short-term military interventions.

The worldview that informs crisis management is a realist perspective, which analyses crises through the prism of national interests and power relations. Crisis managers realise that security is a transnational concept in a globalised world, rendering national security vulnerable to contagion and spill-over effects of conflicts and crisis abroad. Yet, crisis management regards the state with its border regimes and defence mechanisms as a bulwark against negative effects of security interdependence.

The notion of ‘management’ suggests power relations in which the manager (in this case the EU) regards itself as in a position to manage (control) the crisis. In reality, the EU is likely to be acting in concert with other actors (or was essentially subservient to other actors as was the case with Libya), and a crisis, particularly in its emergent phase, is likely to be beyond the control of any actor or concert of actors. Many of the tools used in conflict management are thus aimed at containing the harmful repercussions of a crisis, and thus to prevent it from spreading or spilling over into other forms of crises. Crisis management can be seen as a first step that paves the way for more ambitious forms of intervention to follow. In some situations, however, crisis management is all that is possible over the longer term and crisis mode becomes a semi-permanent stance. In the case of Libya, movement along the CM–CR–CT–CCT trajectory seemed to be regressive, with policies based on engagement, institution-building, and limited forms of integration moving towards simple containment.

Our project found that EU engagement with external crises generated mainly crisis management responses. For instance, EU policies to mitigate the complex security crises in Libya (the lawlessness due to rebel infighting after the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi) and Mali (the combined devastation of a secessionist uprising in the north, a military coup and a jihadist insurgency) demonstrated a narrow border management and security focus, which failed to respond to local security needs (Loschi et al., 2018; Bøås et al., 2018). In both contexts, crisis management was moulded on a Eurocentric rationale of threat containment. While the Libyan and Malian populations have been suffering from the infighting and general lawlessness of militia rule, economic instability and a lack of services, the EU was mainly concerned about weapons trafficking, jihadists crossing borders and migration to Europe. Prioritising its own interests, the EU authorised a Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) in Libya in May 2013 and several border management programmes in Mali (Bøås et al., 2018). This stands in stark contrast to a more conflict-sensitive approach to both countries, which needed to include the promotion of a national (or at least inter-regional) dialogue on power sharing, demobilisation of militias and joint statebuilding. In addition to the mismatch between EU’s narrow interest in threat containment and local interests in a combined approach to the political, security and economic crises of their countries, the EU border management strategies failed to understand the complex border economies in both countries (Loschi et al., 2018; Bøås et al., 2018: 23). In Libya, the EUBAM blueprint for integrated border management was impossible to achieve in the Libyan context of disintegrated state authority (Raineri et al., 2017). Equally poorly conceived remained the EU’s mission EUNAVFOR MED. Its objective of boarding, seizing, searching and diverting human traffickers’ vessels off the Libyan coastline was so mismatched with the political issues on the ground, that it could neither achieve a UN Security Council (UNSC) mandate nor an invitation from the Libyan authorities (Raineri et al., 2017: 31).3

Another crisis management tool that the EU has deployed in several cases is the use of sanctions and conditionalities. In Libya, sanctions against specific individuals among the country’s political elites, for instance, managed to remove some high-level resistance against the centralisation of political authority under the Libyan Political Agreement of 2015 (Raineri, 2017: 24). Individual EU sanctions were also applied to put pressure on Russia’s annexation of Crimea – here, however, with less tangible outcomes (Raineri et al., 2017: 53).

Crisis resolution

The increasing duration of crises as permanent situations have paved the way for more ambitious strategies of dealing with crises. In crisis resolution (CR), for instance, the ambitions are greater than in crisis management as human needs are the focus. This fits the ethos of EU engagement better than crisis management. Aside from stabilising the situation, the ambition is to ‘resolve’ the crisis, involving not only elites but also civil society. Often, this means reaching an agreement and as such it will often involve diplomatic, political and militant elites. Crisis resolution is focused on the needs of crisis-affected populations and considers economic marginalisation, conflicts and ‘bad governance’ as root causes of crises. An EU-sponsored programme on the restoration of local governance and reconciliation in crisis-affected areas of Ukraine provides an example for the latter (Raineri et al., 2017: 47).

On-the-ground needs assessment – with a broader mandate but similarly localised as the 2012 needs assessment mission in Libya – can provide a good starting point. Accordingly, tools would focus on civil society-led debates in order to comprehend the complexity of local political economies, societal divisions and local power structures. Such complex understandings would feed into crisis resolution processes and elite-led diplomacy. Crises resolution may require burden-sharing agreements between the government at the epicentre of the crisis and neighbouring countries or international actors with an interest in regional and global stability, according to human needs provisions (now understood as human security).

However, the underlying approach to development remains constrained by neoliberal concepts of economic growth, which tend to centre on trade relations, governance reforms and investment climate, while its inclusion of civil society is limited to internationally operating actors and INGOs. Consequently, crisis resolution keeps crisis-afflicted economies locked into a precarious path towards development even if it highlights civil society processes.

The deal-making involved in crisis resolution raises questions of recognition and legitimacy. As formal agreements are being made, and as states and international organisations are often party to these agreements, issues of legitimacy are likely to arise. Crisis resolution suggests a longer term perspective on the crisis and its underlying causes.

Our research teams found little evidence for crisis resolution strategies among EU interventions. Civil society involvement may seem like a time-consuming endeavour to crisis responders. Yet, only the involvement of different societal perspectives on crises could help the EU to avoid designing responses that appear biased or self-interested, damaging its legitimacy on the ground. One of the few exceptions to this rule are the EU Capacity Building Mission (EUCAP) training programmes in proximity policing in Mali (Bøås et al., 2018: 22). Here, police forces are trained to work with local communities on their security needs. In the context of the Malian security crisis, such an approach is particularly valuable as the ethnic biases of state security institutions have in the past undermined attempts at statebuilding (Bøås et al., 2018).

Crisis transformation

Crisis transformation (CT) represents a more advanced form of crisis response, and one which closely resembles the goals of the EU on paper if not in practice. It recognises the pitfalls of short-term reactions and elite level deal-making and goes beyond the satisfaction of immediate needs in crisis-afflicted populations. It seeks to deal with the underlying causation and maintenance factors behind a crisis. Primarily, it seeks to lend rights to affected populations. In its attempts to develop an appropriate response strategy, crisis transformers involve a wide range of local perspectives on the crisis and its root causes. Much of the functionalist literature on EU integration, expansion, and engagement in the wider region is based upon this type of logic (Visoka and Doyle, 2015).

Rather than dealing with the fallout of a crisis as if its immediate effects could be easily and quickly reversed, crisis transformation considers the new contexts created by crises as permanent and seeks to accommodate those new realities. Mass exodus of refugee populations from conflict-affected regions, for instance, inflicts more than a short-term strain on host populations and government. Beyond housing and feeding those populations, a crisis transformation approach would offer host governments incentives to extend rights to refugees. An example of this approach can be seen in the EU’s relaxation of its rules of origin in the EU-Jordan Association Agreement to benefit industrial production in Jordan that employs Syrian refugees.4

Crisis transformation includes non-elite actors in attempts to tackle the crisis. In practice, this means that crisis response networks have to be built from the ground up, starting with local actors at the epicentre of the crises, connected with regional and international organisations with the aim of sharing resources and coordinating crisis response strategies. Among the cases studied in this chapter, the Support Group for Ukraine (SGUA) constitutes the most serious attempt at crisis response coordination. SGUA was established to liaise between different EU aid efforts in Ukraine and those of its member states, while also facilitating the cooperation with other donors. Sadly, SGUA lacks credible links to its local counterparts, making it unproductive (Loschi et al., 2018: 49) and disqualifying it as a genuinely transformative crisis response.

While offering assistance instantly in the heat of a crisis, crisis transformation considers the long-term effects of intervention: crisis response networks would incorporate local knowledge and offer capacity-building in return; its strategy aims to expand from the short-term to the medium and long-term based on the understanding that path dependency (either with the institutionalisation of intervention or with the power structures on the ground) could set in and spoil the outcome if based on a misguided understanding of the crisis. Hence, it builds regular review and monitoring milestones into its strategy in order to ward off negative long-term effects of short-term crisis response measures. It is a more long-term and costly response that operates at all levels of government and society.

Critical crisis transformation

The logical outcome of the thrust of EU policy, combined with the evolution of Peace and Conflict studies, along with the critical strands of EU studies indicates the possibility of more critical forms of crisis transformation (CCT) emerging in future, however. CCT would draw on the post-colonial, feminist, and more social democratic strand of thinking about the nature of peaceful order, fourth-generation thinking about conflict and peace, and an array of critical arguments about processes and aims of integration. It would combine the discursive and civil society approach of conflict/crisis resolution, with the more multidimensional and inclusive approach of conflict/crisis transformation, with a hybrid design of intervention-related institutions, crisis analysis and policies. An example for this would be a more inclusive version of the ‘Political Framework for a Crisis Approach’ (PFCA) as drafted by the EEAS in 2014 for the Libyan crisis. By bringing together all EU-internal expertise on Libya, critically assessing EU strategy in the country, identifying threats and outlining strategies for crises response, the Political Framework could have been the first step towards developing a hybrid crisis transformation framework. Yet, the lack of a systematic inclusion of Libyan partners and thus of EU-local consensus building in crises response disqualified the Political Framework as a transformatory approach. Strong hints of EU policy evolution may be found in documents such as Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe (European Union HR/VP, 2016), and in claims it has made about its goals in the Western Balkans and elsewhere, and the work that has gone into developing ECHO or multitrack forms of diplomacy (European Commission, 2009).

Associated practices would be based on dynamics of historical and distributive justice and the realisation of the relationality of global crises, avoiding core–periphery style discrimination as well as the limited goals of crisis management. It would recognise the materiality of needs as well as the importance of opening up to a multitude of local discourses in the attempt to understand and later resolve crises. Indeed, critical crisis transformation would try to distil its analysis of the causes of a crisis from a large variety of local and expert perspectives. Through such consultation processes, it might avoid premature narrowing of the crisis narrative, which is likely to set crisis response on the wrong path and facilitates the cascading of crisis through different spheres (Walby, 2015). It would also point to the need for broad institutional approaches, identifying institutions and instruments of crisis intervention in cooperation with local partners. Such a hybrid approach negotiates northern biases through localised claims and accepts that mobility is a legitimate mode of crisis response. It would recognise difference and would avoid inadvertently promoting centralised, state-centric, territorialised forms of government to the detriment of emancipatory and local forms of legitimacy. Moreover, it would require regular monitoring of the effectiveness of the crisis response. Most importantly, this would recognise that localised crises are often manifestations of wider structural and global justice oriented issues, which require the renegotiation of power relations (Gamble, 2014). This is where the EU might be most useful: to lend its weight to attempts to rectify these imbalances, which allow crises to resurface in different regions with devastating consequences for the affected societies.

It should be stressed that the elements of the CM–CR–CT–CCT framework might be seen as gradations along the same path. It could be that conditions do not allow anything more ambitious than minimal management and reaction. Over time, conditions may change and allow for more ambitious forms of intervention. Acute urgency and time limitations may constrain policy towards crisis management, but as situations become more protracted, it may tend to shift towards the longer term goals and processes implied by crisis resolution and transformation.

Applying the framework

We recommend the CM–CR–CT–CCT framework as it enables the examination of the actions and stances of the EU (and its partners, proxies and competitors) and the epistemologies and politics that lie behind them. It also points to the fact that, in line with more critical and interdisciplinary thinking, as well as with the more advanced claims of EU policy-making, a CCT framework may be plausible, drawing on the framework outlined above. The framework is proposed as a way of characterising EU stances in a systematic, comparative manner. It allows us to chart EU stances and policies in terms of the extent to which they may be characterised as realist and state/system-reinforcing (first- and second-generation peace interventions) or transformatory, welfarist and rights-based (third- and fourth-generation peace interventions). The framework pronounces on whether EU crisis response instruments and practices are orientated towards states and institutions or towards people and societies. Of course, the evidence so far points towards hybridised forms of crisis response that involve accepting (and possibly reinforcing) elements of crises. More important conceptually, crises are understood more from the perspective of the EU rather than from the perspective of the individual’s or community’s security and rights.

In terms of lessons learned, the decision-making and feedback processes that attend EU foreign and security policy-making, including crisis response (Peters, 2016: introduction) raise two main points. The first is that the policy-making process has limited scope for input from local actors (often the recipients or proposed ‘beneficiaries’ of crisis response). The nature of the EU, as a collection of states, means that many of its bureaucratic systems are designed to privilege elite forms of information that come from other states (or multilateral bodies). This has created a form of strategic paralysis with respect to peace, but it has been useful for engaging with migration and corruption issues. It means that EU crisis strategies are pushed back towards those associated with conflict management, leading at best to concurrence with the post- War on Terror ‘stabilisation’ framework as a form of contemporary counter-insurgency praxis.

A second point relates to the epistemologies and worldviews that lie behind conflict management, conflict resolution and conflict transformation and how they relate to the decision-making processes and assessment of ‘success’ and ‘failure’. Crisis management as the most conservative of the perspectives is represented in Figure 7.1 (Chapter 7), where the setting of policy agendas and the requirement of consensus is limited to the EU, while external actors are expected to change their behaviour and comply. Conflict transformation, and particularly critical versions of that, would sit most uncomfortably with this way of defining ‘success’ or ‘failure’ and the structures of domination that it represents. The emphasis in conflict transformation on bottom-up and organic processes, inclusion of minorities, mutual learning as well as meaningful emancipation and empowerment would struggle with the linearity and controlled nature of institutionalised and formal processes. We are aware, of course, that Figure 7.1 represents a simplification and abstraction of very complex processes that involve multiple actors and processes, and events and exigencies are capable of throwing ordained and institutionalised processes off course. As explained in previous sections, a crisis management mind-set is likely to value path dependency and assess effectiveness and success as fulfilment of externally set goals. A crisis resolution mind-set, and more particularly that associated with crisis transformation, is more likely to be open to the analysis, 
agency and initiative of local actors. What appears to have arisen in EU engagements is a discursive framework that extends to and surpasses crisis resolution approaches, but in practice there exists a very traditional conflict and crisis management framework.

This represents a significant compromise on critical approaches to peace, which would require that crisis diagnosis and the design of policy instruments would be carried out jointly in cooperation with diverse actors from the crisis-affected context as depicted in Table 2.1, and engaging with a broader range of conflict dynamics as well as justice issues. This would open up the question of how crisis management would be framed through the eyes of the subalterns affected directly and indirectly by it, probably producing a hybrid version: still skewed towards the geopolitical and often Eurocentric interests of the EU, but at least more cognisant of the demands connected to the broader legitimacy of intervention, peacebuilding, and statebuilding.

Concluding discussion

The chapter has outlined three sets of taxonomies of crisis or conflict response:

  • First–Second–Third–Fourth Generation peacebuilding
  • Crisis management–Crisis resolution–Crisis transformation–Critical crisis transformation
  • Realist–Structuralist–Liberal–Welfarist / Social Democratic responses

There are considerable overlaps between the three categorisations (thus pointing towards hybridisation). They can all be considered as constituting a continuum that moves from conservative to progressive and emancipatory stances.

A key observation from our studies has been the centrality of the EU in EU calculations rather than attempts to see crises in their own right or through the eyes of those in crisis locations. Crisis engagement represents EU security and political interests (in terrorism, migration, with weak common values), rather than those of disputant societies, or indeed of ‘subaltern’ actors. Indeed, looking back in the institutional history of EU crisis response shows a worrying trend towards realist, securitised and self-interested interventions: the EU’s Border Assistance Mission to Rafah, at the crossing point between Gaza and Egypt, with its main objective to foster confidence-building as a strategy to promote peace and strengthen the possibility of Palestinian statehood, shows that even border security missions can be normatively driven. Such priorities are a long way off from the EUBAM in Libya and other recent border assistance policies, whose purpose reflects mainly the EU’s concern over issues of human trafficking and terrorism. Our case studies in this chapter, and indeed the case studies through this book, have shown that most EU crises responses are currently limited to crisis management with mostly unsuccessful or incomplete examples of further-reaching approaches.

Operates in conjunction with other strategies Is system compliant or system challenging? Extends beyond top-down actors Satisfies needs of conflict-affected societies Extends rights to conflict-affected populations
Conflict/crisis management (-) compliant (-) (-) (-)
Conflict/crisis resolution (+) compliant (+) short-term (-)
Conflict/crisis transformation (+) challenging (+) medium / long-term (+)
(Critical crisis transformation) (+) (re-structuring) (+) short to long term (+)

If EU policies strive for a third and fourth generation of crisis transformation, EUNPACK research suggests that broader approaches are needed. It would have to engage with alternative forms of legitimate political authority outside of the modern state, it would be even less territorialised and more relational and networked across scales, and more focused on social assistance and consent. It would favour, in a somewhat contradictory manner, more external intervention if it were to be couched in such terms. In this way, the objectives inferred from ethnographic perspectives of crisis response, as compared with institutional and EU perspectives, transcend debates about shared or networked sovereignty, and humanitarian intervention, and are more in line with the normative but discursive frameworks of human rights and global justice to which the EU’s policy was at least theoretically connected. However, fatigue with intervention, and a related retreat to concepts such as ‘principled pragmatism’5, subsidiarity and resilience, as a response to both material and normative overstretch, has undermined the EU’s local peacebuilding authority and legitimacy in our cases.

We find no evidence for a graduated conflict response in our cases (although some variation was found in other cases in the EUNPACK project): strategies to contain risks in the EU’s neighbourhood are the same as the approaches used further afield. We also find that crisis responses are not geared to the empirical, ethnographic dynamics of the conflicts, which have now been well documented and should be included in any responses. They are instead geared to the EU’s centralised view of what constitutes a crisis for its core actors and policies: challenges to its model for integration, including its arguments for rights, democracy and capital; mass migration, influx of refugees and the weakening of states’ ability to contain such movements; the risks for the destabilisation of the EU project’s rationality of such factors, and the risks for the unity of specific member states. Attempts to resolve these contradictions have rarely been made. All of this points to the construction of crises often through political and discursive means.

The ontology of EU crisis management follows a realist rationale of prime interests for the broad rights of EU citizens, and the EU as a coherent state-like actor with hard borders, after which distance from a crisis enables a shift in the order to narrow security interests. This is despite an understanding – at a superficial level at any rate – of issues such as conflict sensitivity, gender, identity, mobility and the existence of alternative forms of political authority. Rather than engagement more with citizens’ needs, the reverse patterns arises. In effect, this prioritises the interests of EU citizens and states over the rights of conflict-affected citizens but without resolving the contradictions between national interests and identity-based normative claims for security, EU interests and its liberal norms.

This chapter has sketched out what crisis resolution and crisis transformation could look like, and a way to measure existing stances. A needs and rights-focused approach to crises would help the EU to rescue its image of being a normative actor and position the EU as a progressive force in international politics. It offers the prospect of ‘democratising’ responses by working with and alongside local and non-elite actors, thus opening up opportunities for local ownership, partnership and – ultimately – sustainable forms of peace (a finding replicated in other chapters in this book). There are some signs of differentiated and modulated responses from the EU, and the range of actual and proposed responses covered in this chapter suggest room for a further hybridisation in crisis response – deftly changing the response in relation to an evolving crisis.

The major difference between crisis management and crisis transformation is that the latter works with the networks, agency and knowledge that already exist on the ground and connects its assistance to them. In other words, crisis transformation is able to move beyond states and formal political institutions. The grounding of crisis response in local politics helps to overcome two of the major downsides of crisis short-termism: the fragility of its resolution mechanisms as well the tendency to overreact in a way that spurs the forces that feed on social discontent (Runciman, 2016: 3–16). The continuous evolution of knowledge on any specific crisis requires a constant information flow between grassroots response and international decision-making. Crisis response mechanisms have to be regularly contrasted with local perceptions as might be observed with the EU crisis response strategies in Mali, Ukraine and Libya.

The timeline of any intervention and engagement is worthy of scrutiny. Crisis response thus needs to be considered on the basis of the path dependencies that it creates and are actors able to disengage with that path dependency: Who owns or identifies with the state that the EU tries to reinforce for the purpose of threat containment? Are EU interests in a crisis context aligned with the interests of crisis-affected societies? Does crisis intervention empower discredited or contested domestic elites? Would this erode the legitimacy of EU involvement in the eyes of crisis-affected populations? How can local agency and indigenous technical knowledge be incorporated into EU crisis response?

Creating and maintaining mutual trust and understanding between local and international crisis response requires more than bureaucratic models of regular reviews and formal consultation processes. Indeed, the abundance of such formalities has disheartened many crisis-affected communities (as becomes clear in many other chapters in this book). CCT is more closely attuned to the peace and security goals of the EU than crisis management, resolution, or transformation approaches applied so far. CCT offers the chance to create short- to long-term, multidimensional and yet locally modulated, sustainable and effective strategies to eradicate the root causes and longer-term consequences of both crises and conflicts, rather than merely their symptoms. Yet, as found in the EUNPACK project and as illustrated in many chapters in this book, EU foreign policy ambitions have been curbed and there is a trend towards stabilisation and securitisation. This accords more with conflict management than anything more progressive.


1 Indeed, solidarity in cases of terrorist attacks, man-made or natural disasters is contractually mandated in Art. 222 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (Treaty of Rome). Since the shape of this solidarity is not further defined though, this obligation cannot be enforced (see Bátora et al., 2016: 21).
2 In 2012, the Nobel Prize Committee honoured the EU for its advancements in the above fields with the Nobel Peace Prize.
3 The mission was eventually launched half a year later. However, it had to be re-dedicated from an anti-migration into an anti-terrorism policy.
5 Multiple interviews and observations from our different case studies confirmed this argument.


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