Flight bans: A lesson about the Precautionary Principle

by Edgar L. Gärtner

Eyjafjallajokull - Volcano Sends Lava In The AirJust in time before the first business failures caused by several-day-long flight losses, the air traffic in Western and Central Europe slowly got off the ground after the complete flight ban. A good opportunity to take stock and to summarise what one can learn from the political crisis caused by a comparatively small volcanic eruption. I would like to leave the presumption of a possible story behind the story of the Icelandic ash cloud to one side and focus on what generally accessible media communicated. It grabs one’s attention that the problem is not the volcanic eruption, but the inability of the European and national authorities to deal with it reasonably.

“We have rarely experienced such a brainless actionism in Europe.” That’s how specialised journalist Jan Brill judged the handling of European and German authorities with the ash cloud of the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull on 19th of April 2010 in ‘Pilot und Flugzeug’. Brill concludes his analysis with the following bitter comment: “The technological degree of development of a society is not recognized by how everyday life is mastered, but how new challenges are handled. The Icelandic ash cloud is a new challenge. The European Union and Germany answered with bureaucracy, instead of required authority, flexibility and initiative. The result fails accordingly. The only ray of hope on the ash horizon could be seen in the confrontation of a majority of the population with borders and lack of practical relevance of problem solving in aviation.”

Unfortunately, Brill does not mention that the behaviour of the authorities quite corresponds to the “precautionary principle”, unanimously adopted in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. This principle grants politicians and bureaucrats a permanent position on the safe side, because any political arbitrariness is permitted, any decision can be justified and any claims for compensation of affected companies can be rejected. The precautionary principle means: Not eliminated doubts about the security of products and actions are not allowed to be used as apology for postponing cost-pregnant renouncement or preventive measures if there is reason to suspect serious environmental or health endangerment. Manufacturers of products or service providers are to prove the safeness of their goods and services prior to market introduction. Until recently, however, this burden of proof was considered impossible by the rules of court and by Karl R. Popper’s science theory. We cannot prove in advance that something is sure but only ensure by a systematic evaluation and documentation of our negative experiences that we do not repeat the same errors.

Nevertheless, the precautionary principle found its way into the Maastricht Treaty, the Lisbon Constitutional Treaty and into the French constitution. The politically unsuspected ‘Commission Attali’,appointed by the French president Nicolas Sarkozy at least appealed for a cancellation of the precautionary principle in their final report of 2008, as the precautionary principle creates juridical insecurity and becomes a major investment and growth obstacle, as long as the question whether and to what extent protection measures may be subject to cost-benefit analysis remains unanswered.

The entitlement of this criticism has already been shown for example in the over-reactions on the swine flu and now even more significant in the European-Ash-Festival. Precaution measures are without a doubt quite meaningful, as long as they seek to avert risks, whose probability of occurrence is to some extent calculable and which therefore are also insurable. However, it is obviously that the precaution principle does not permit any rational handling of badly or incalculable life risks, if it is applied to the letter. The risk and crisis management often has to choose between two evils. The underlying all-or-nothing nihilistic figure of thought behind the precaution principle is, however, not able to discern the lesser evil. Instead it almost invites for playing in populist manner ‘good’ safety interests against ‘bad’ economical interests and therewith ultimately accepting an economic suicide. Only death is really sure (and for the believers eternal life in the other world).


About the Author: Edgar Gaertner