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08 June 2023

'Fear of reporting bad news' among factors behind slow reaction to international crises

A reluctance to report or acknowledge bad news and the politicisation of analysis by member states were major contributors to incidents where the European Union was caught by surprise as international crises erupted.


A reluctance to report or acknowledge bad news and the politicisation of analysis by member states were major contributors to incidents where the European Union was caught by surprise as international crises erupted.

A new article co-authored by academics at King’s College London has identified key factors behind the EU's failure to anticipate or react quickly enough to major foreign policy incidents in the recent past, with a particular focus on an institutional culture that appeared averse to, and fearful of, reporting negative news.

The piece published in the journal European Security was authored by Professor Christoph Meyer, from the Department of European and International Studies, and Dr Nikki Ikani, Assistant Professor at Leiden University and Visiting Research Fellow from the Department of War Studies..

The report focusses on the EU’s anticipation of and reaction to the Arab uprisings of 2011 and the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2013/14, two incidents which caught the EU as well as other international actors by surprise and led to criticisms over the slowness and nature of their responses.

The academics drew on research of open sources from think-tanks, NGOs, and quality media from the time – assessing how experts at the time assessed the prospects and trajectory of these events. They also interviewed more than 50 officials and decision-makers working in EU institutions and national diplomatic services to understand the production, communication and reception of warnings. Workshops about lessons to be learnt were also held with members of British and German intelligence and diplomatic services.

The academics tested several theories they thought may have contributed to the EU’s strategic surprise, looking especially at:

  • Constrained collection capacity and limited access to raw and assessed intelligence
  • Fragmented structures for foreign and warning intelligence
  • Inhibiting organisational culture within the European External Action Service
  • Member state politicisation of analysis and receptivity
  • Blind spots created by dominant worldviews and policy templates

Among a series of findings, the report highlights, in particular, a reluctance of diplomats to pass on what might be perceived as negative news, thereby upsetting prevailing policy positions and a consensus culture sought by superiors, as well as a reticence to share analysis whose action implications may lead to pushback and hostility from member states. In contradiction to some expectations, the EU’s limited intelligence collection capacities were not a major explanation for the surprise in these cases.

Our findings point to largely overlooked factors in the study EU foreign policy particularly the stifling role played by a hierarchical organisational culture and by member states’ politicisation of the analytical process.

Academic team

“While the multi-national EU is somewhat less vulnerable to the politicisation of intelligence compared to states given its inherent diversity, attempts to sustain or build a strong esprit de corps in supranational bodies can reduce the analytical benefits of cognitive diversity for warning intelligence.

“Furthermore, too often member states’ diverse historical experiences were not used as an asset for better analysis, but dismissed as prejudice or interest masquerading as knowledge.”

As well as a more robust and far-reaching independent inquiry function to identify and learn lessons after such major surprises, the report suggested the EU could consider improved training on handling assumptions and biases, targeted recruitment of specialist staff and conscious use of nationality for analytical challenge, cultural and procedural change to encourage the constructive expression of analytical dissent coupled with improved career protection, and improving the legal basis for an EU intelligence function in the treaties, as means of guarding against strategic surprise.


You can read the article in full here.

In this story

Christoph Meyer

Professor of European & International Politics

Nikki  Ikani

Research Fellow