Peter J. Verovšek, Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Politics/International Relations at the University of Sheffield and British Academy Mid-Career Fellow, joined us in a conversation about the challenges facing Europe’s unity. In this interview, he sheds light on the factors preventing intellectuals from actively and effectively addressing these challenges.
“If you have a kind of conception of democracy based on a national popular sovereignty, then you do not necessarily see populism as a problem.”
What is dividing Europeans and what is holding them together?
I believe that the biggest thing uniting Europeans is the awareness that Europe is becoming an ever-smaller part of the world both economically and (geo-)politically. I think that many Europeans are aware of the fact that in order to keep punching above their economic and political weight, they must do it through Europe, in the form of the EU; in other words, they must work together. Unfortunately, I think what so often divides Europe is precisely a lack of agreement on what the EU should be doing in common. There is not so much disagreement on external policies like trade, but rather more on the enforcement of domestic norms, on how to protect democracy at home, and on how regional funds should be spent. The agreement holding Europeans together is by and large found within the international challenges with which the EU is confronted.
“Until we have a common conception of what it means to have democracy both at home and the European level, it will be difficult to reach agreement on what the EU’s role is.”
Which role do different narratives of democracy play in this respect?
I am convinced that different conceptions of democracy have developed in Western and Central Europe; populism, even the conceptualisation of it, is an obstacle in this regard. If your central point of reference is 1989, with the experience of Communism fresh in your mind and body, of being under the thumb of Moscow and with a feeling of not having control, then it is very easy to interpret populism not as a problem, but instead as an expression of popular sovereignty, of the desire of control on the part of the people of the national community that fought so much against the external control of the Soviet Union. They [the post-Communist states] did not fight so hard to get out from under the thumb of Moscow merely to once again cede power to Brussels. If you have a conception of democracy based on a national popular sovereignty, then you do not necessarily see populism as a problem. Whereas the Western perspective, which comes out of 1945 and is defined by the importance of individual rights like press freedom and rights to assembly rather than popular sovereignty, has been institutionalised at the European Union and various international organisations in the West. In that liberal perspective and conception of the rule of law and democracy, it is very clear that even the slightest thought of populism is problematic. Until we have a common conception of what it means to have democracy both at home and the European level, it will be very difficult to reach an agreement on what the EU’s role is in Europe and how the EU should relate to its own member states.
“We [academics] complain a lot about ‘fake news’ and the degradation of public discourse. I believe in many ways it is an obligation for those of us who … have the luxury and privilege of being able to think about these things for a living, to actually enter into the public sphere …”
What could and should the scientific community and academies do to deal with this challenge?
The academic community has an important role to play. We [academics] complain a lot about ‘fake news’ and the degradation of public discourse. I believe that in many ways it is an obligation for those of us who approach these issues academically – who have the luxury and privilege of being able to think about these things for a living – to actually enter into the public sphere and provide our own perspectives in order to ensure that these issues are heard and are debated in a productive manner. This would help to ensure that a deliberative debate is occurring and not just polarisation or mere shouting. Therefore, I think there is an important role for public intellectuals to play in this process. Unfortunately, a lot of the ways intellectuals are educated these days do not help with that. We are trained to be scholars, there is a lot of pressure for publication and a lot of institutional incentives that push against our entrance into the public sphere and against us taking the time to engage in things like deliberative polling in town halls, as well as to engage in public debates when we are under an incredible pressure to produce research ‘outputs’, to teach more and to confront more administration at the university level. Economic factors and obligations push intellectuals against getting engaged with the public sphere.
“Academies provide fora for academics to engage with the public, to do more deliberation about important public affairs and stimulate public discourse that is more about reaching an agreement than merely about fake news and polarisation.”
Perhaps European academies could play a bigger role here, by helping to raise the profile of that kind of public engagement for academics. Academies provide fora for intellectuals to engage with the public, to do more deliberation about important public affairs and stimulate public discourse that is more about reaching an agreement than merely about fake news and polarisation.
This interview was originally conducted at the conference ‘Europe on Test: The Onus of the Past – and the Necessities of the Future’, organised by the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN) and ALLEA in October 2019.