The level of frustration among citizens in the EU’s member States is strikingly high. This growing dissatisfaction is reflected in the increasingly critical and nationalistic positions adopted by governments toward the EU and its institutions in recent years. This rising sense of frustration can be traced to two main sources: (i) an alleged lack of transparency of decision-making at the highest levels of the Union, a complex political system that many people do not understand or profess not to understand; and (ii) a perceived lack of participatory mechanisms that would give citizens a greater say in the shaping of the European policy. The Scholars Programme in the Humanities and Social Sciences recently announced by the Europaeum Network – a consortium of 12 leading European universities – addresses these issues directly. As the chairman of the Network, Dr. Andrew Graham of Balliol College at Oxford University, puts it, the Programme is “fighting Europe’s fights”. For it is designed specifically to stimulate young researchers to come up with ideas for tackling some of the major challenges now confronting the EU.
Strengthening participation One of the young doctoral researchers who has received a scholarship from the Programme is Felix Biermann, a political scientist at LMU’s Scholl Institute. Together with the other members of his project group, he is seeking ways of enhancing the use of e-governance in the EU’s administration, under the motto ‘Be Your Own Lobbyist’. “Most people do not know that the EU specifically calls upon its citizens to submit their ideas, proposals and views on draft legislation. But this consultation mechanism is primarily used by lobby groups and corporations likely to be affected by new legislation,” says Biermann. “Our aim is to make this platform more attractive and easier to use, so that it is fully accessible to all EU citizens.” This project was initiated after the first module of the Scholars Programme in January in Oxford. Although it is still in its early days, the project group has already identified a number of promising approaches. “We must simplify and clarify the language – without misrepresenting the issues involved and the purpose of the proposed measures – so that normal people can understand the content. It is also important to ensure that people who have set out their views can subsequently discover how their contributions have been received, and whether and how they have been taken into account,” Biermann says. He and his collaborators are confident that, once their own proposals have fully worked out, they will be taken up by the EU.
Responding to Brexit One obvious reason for the establishment of the new Scholars Programme can be stated in a single word: ‘Brexit’. “The Europaeum Network seeks to foster and strengthen the European idea, because the departure of the UK from the EU will have significant repercussions for the research landscape in Europe,” says Professor Hans van Ess. As Vice-President for International Affairs at LMU, he recognizes that the current state of competition in research in the EU could be put at risk if such a significant contributor as the UK were to leave the Union. “It is vital that British universities can continue to submit proposals to the EU and take an active part in collaborative research. High-quality research is possible only in a climate of competition and interaction.” He therefore welcomes the Europaeum’s Scholars Programme. As he emphasizes, the initiative offers doctoral candidates in the Humanities and the Social Sciences the opportunity to develop their ideas in the context of international networks. – And these networks work very well. “It is quite rare to see so many very gifted people interacting with one another in such a civilized and mutually respectful fashion,” says Tamara Fröhler, a literary scholar who is preparing a doctoral thesis on 19th century drama. In collaboration with colleagues in her own field, and with historians and legal scholars, her goal is to give voice to those “whose opinions seldom find expression in current political debates”. The eight researchers in her project group are engaged in conducting video interviews in their home countries, with the aim of “simply letting people tell us what upsets them about the EU, and what their hopes are for the Union.” An exhibition based on the content of these interviews will be held in Oxford in 2019 and will later be shown throughout the EU.
Tolerating different views In addition to project work, the 2-year scholarships (each worth £10,000) provide for direct interactions and coaching sessions with representatives of the EU. This gives the Scholars an inside view of the workings and political life of the EU’s administration. Eight of these modules are planned. In the first of these, held in Oxford, participants in the Scholars Programme had the chance to meet and hold discussions with the Deputy Secretary-General of NATO. One important advantage of working in project groups is that they stimulate an awareness of the range of approaches that can be applied to any particular problem, and participants learn to acknowledge the legitimacy of dissent and to tolerate different viewpoints. “This diversity reflects on a small scale how political cooperation within the EU actually works,” says Tamara Fröhler. “We are all federalists, we are all pro-Europe, but we have different cultural backgrounds and have correspondingly diverse opinions on various areas of policy.” Indeed, this multiplicity of opinions is what makes project work so exciting.
Besides the projects on which Biermann and Fröhler are working, there are two others in the Scholars Programme. One is devoted to fleshing out the idea of an annual ‘Non-EU Day’, on which the benefits of the Union are temporarily suspended. The other looks at ‘energy poverty’ in Europe. Franziska Hobmaier, a PhD student at LMU’s Chair of Public and European Law, is involved in the latter, and she outlines the problem as follows. “A surprisingly large number of EU citizens are unable to pay their energy bills, particularly for electricity, home heating and hot water. This applies especially true to vulnerable population groups, who are exposed to significant health risks and in part excluded from participation in public life when their energy supply is cut off,” says Hobmaier,. Together with the other members of her interdisciplinary team, she is trying to develop ways of effectively eliminating energy poverty by instituting coordinated measures at all levels, from that of local government to the national and European levels. The ultimate goal is to close this striking gap between the lived experiences of those directly affected and the stipulations of EU legislation in this area. The project’s proximate aim is to produce a set of policy guidelines that can also be applied to other kinds of problems. What Franziska most appreciates about the Scholars Programme is that it allows her to be become acquainted with a variety of strategies for tackling problems. “One’s own approach is not the only possible approach,” she says. The other thing is that one learns to express one’s ideas in simpler terms, because the terminology used in one’s own discipline is not necessarily comprehensible to someone from a different subject area. Active participation, discussion and dialog – these are, or should be, the hallmarks of a Europe that engages positively with all its citizens.
Europaeum The Europaeum Network was initiated by Oxford University in 1992 as an association of leading European universities. With a focus on the Humanities and Social Sciences, Europaeum provides students and junior researchers with the opportunity to work and learn together, and to develop a commitment to European cooperation by stimulating collaborative research and academic mobility. LMU became a member of the Europaeum Network in 2015.
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