Written by Freya Windle-Wehrle,

The first fully online ESPAS Annual Conference was held on 18 and 19 November 2020. Under the title ‘Thinking about the Future: Europe’s Road to 2030’, the conference focused on the impact of the pandemic on global trends, and on the practical application of foresight in policy-making. With around 600 people connecting on each day, it set an all-time attendance record (of the eight conferences so far).

The conference secured a wide array of senior political, academic and think tank figures from Europe and beyond. They tackled issues such as how the pandemic could impact global trends, what will be Europe’s place in the changed world that awaits us, and the future of transatlantic relations with a Biden administration.

European Parliament President David Sassoli opened the conference with a thoughtful speech on Europe’s future.

‘Our goal [is] to look ahead and make Europe future-proof for new challenges. The pandemic won’t be the only challenge, there will be many other challenges, and […] we have to be ready to take initiatives and to take up responsibilities’ David Sassoli


Especially during crises, democracies cannot grind to a halt. President Sassoli remarked that we find ourselves at a point that leads us to reimagine the basics of the European Union and its future direction. The coronavirus pandemic may be a transformative moment, enabling us to see a more sustainable model of development, with environmental and social justice at its core.

Following President Sassoli’s introduction, European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič presented the Commission’s first strategic foresight report. He emphasised that foresight is about anticipating, exploring and ultimately acting in a collaborative manner. With this in mind, Vice-President Šefčovič launched an EU-wide strategic foresight network, which will see EU institutions, Member States, think tanks, academia, civil society and international organisations joining forces to

‘ … put strategic foresight at the heart of EU policy making’
Maroš Šefčovič

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and senior ministers from across the EU expressed their commitment to the newly created network, agreeing that Europe needs a plan for the future. Strengthening our capacity for evidence-based anticipatory governance is necessary to get ahead of events, instead of being overtaken by them – for which more resilience is needed. As well as joint efforts to design, develop and deliver better policies for better lives.

If the last months have taught us anything, it is that Member States can no longer rely on traditional methods of policy-making and crisis management. We need to become more resilient. Klaus Welle, the European Parliament’s Secretary-General, linked to this point, presenting the Parliament’s recent risks and capability gaps mapping.

‘… it becomes interesting to immediately have a look at the crisis waiting after the crisis’
Klaus Welle

After having been confronted with three major crises in the past years (financial, immigration and Covid‑19), the question of preparedness arises. Mapping risks is the first step towards a methodology to screen the landscape and better prepare the European Union. We need to do this in a systematic, not ad hoc way.

Madeleine Albright, special guest and former United States Secretary of State shared her thoughts about America and transatlantic relations with David McAllister, Chair of the Committee on Foreign Relations in the European Parliament. While looking into the current state of democracy in the west and international relations, she pointed out that democracies are resilient, even during a pandemic. In the case of the USA, the high numbers of votes during the last election provides proof of this resilience. However, Madeleine Albright also suggested that the Trump era has been hard on democracies, as it has fuelled populism and created tensions, for example in trade.

Where Madeleine Albright sees scope for transatlantic cooperation is on climate change. Here, she believes that a common vision and honesty amongst a family of democracies will help – possibly also when encouraging reforms for organisations such as the United Nations.

Whereas Madeleine Albright is worried about Russia, who is playing a ‘weak hand’ whilst trying to separate the USA and the EU, she closed in looking at Turkey, a country towards which the EU should have been more welcoming when they wanted to become a part of the west, instead of ‘changing the goalposts’ of what they had to accomplish.

The second day of the ESPAS Conference was, like the first, a cornucopia of thought-provoking discussions. The panel offering a foretaste of the future featured, as social media put it, the ‘Queens of foresight’, including: Eva Kaili (Chair of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology); Jeanette Kwek (Head, Centre for Strategic Futures, Singapore); Alexander Schieferdecker (Head of Strategic Foresight and Policy Planning, Federal Chancellery, Germany); Jaana Tapanainen‑Thiess (Prime Minister’s Office, Finland); as well as Simonetta Cook (Cabinet, President of the European Council), who moderated the session.

Their conclusion was that foresight is the most important leadership skill in the 21st century. Eva Kaili summed this up in saying that it is key to have long-term strategies, understand trends to prepare legislation and future jobs, and be more resilient.

‘We need to look beyond the immediate crisis and see farther into the future’
Simonetta Cook

Whilst there was general agreement on this point, Jeanette Kwek pointed out that foresight is a step-by-step process, a cultural shift that cannot be rushed. The Singaporean example has been working on implementing foresight for more than 20 years, yet is only now fully functional. Jeanette Kwek added that foresight processes could become even more successful, if futures literacy became a subject in schools to train citizens for their future lives.

‘The future is a moving target’
Jaana Tapanainen‑Thiess

Finland was represented by Jaana Tapanainen‑Thiess. Their futures work is based on collaboration, co-creation and participation, an approach Vice-President Šefčovič is pursuing with the new EU-wide foresight network. According to Jaana Tapanainen‑Thiess, scenarios can help a lot in this field. Being ‘powerful planning tools’, they require decision-makers to question assumptions about how the world works. This helps ‘rehearse’ the future and engage in a strategic conversation about it. Most importantly, however, one must use the ‘power of the crowd’, by engaging with others. Examples include the Futures Dialogue and the Ministry of the Future Reviews.

Alexander Schieferdecker underlined that those who have to deal with complicated negotiations on current problems on a daily basis do not always find it easy to look 5-10 years ahead, a detail also relevant for Members of the European Parliament.

‘The future is fairly good but it needs constant vigilance, constant, tender, loving care and good politicians and policies’
Shada Islam

The panel discussion ‘What future for democracy and government post-coronavirus?’ delved deep into a wide range of topics, including social investments, data sovereignty and targeted information, social divides, tribal media and media literacy. What stood out most, however, was Professor Brigid Laffan’s (Director Robert Schuman Centre, EUI) remark about democracy being fragile. Brigid Laffan further stated that it ‘requires constant vigilance and effort, [and] that it makes an enormous difference to one’s life’.

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky (University of Bristol), an expert in cognitive psychology, claimed that we live in a regulated environment, but that regulations are not made by democratic institutions. He suggests the European Union has reclaimed the regulatory space, by taking it back from corporations, to endow democratically accountable bodies. He highlighted that targeted information seriously undermines democracy. We must combat inequality, as it provides opportunities for populists to gain a greater share of votes, something also alluded to by Madeleine Albright.

‘Crises are a terrible thing to waste! We need an equitable and inclusive recovery instead of what happened in 2008’
Mathew Burrows

Mathew Burrows (Director, Atlantic Council) closed the session, adding that sociocultural issues can undermine democracy. He reflected upon the US situation by saying that a lot needs to be done domestically to combat the problems that have grown over decades, where political segregation had led to areas that are uniform in their political views. Digital life has further increased this phenomenon.

Want to know more? Further details about the programme and speakers can be found on the conference website. You will find a full list of recordings in the EPRS-ESPAS YouTube Playlist.