Interview with Johan Schot and Wolfram Kaiser

Q & A with the editors of the book series Making Europe: The Making and Breaking of Europe: Implications of the COVID-19 Crisis

Europe is faced with unprecedented challenges as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Everything the European Union has been promoting for decades (openness, collaboration, freedom), has been reversed in a matter of days. Closed borders, strict travel bans and restrictions on the transportation of goods are the consequence, as governments struggle to find a balance between protecting citizens and responding to the cry for solidarity and aid of those countries hit the worst. And in all the chaos, the EU appears to be a weather vane rather than the solid rock that would be much needed. While some already predict the fall of the European Union, others sense a chance for transformation and call for the EU to prove itself as the strong connecting piece that it set out to be.

In their book Writing the Rules for Europe Professor Johan Schot and Professor Wolfram Kaiser highlight the role of experts and technocrats in relation to defining and implementing rules of European governance since the mid-19th century. Through telling the epic stories of those experts, companies and international organizations that progressed European integration and collaboration, Schot and Kaiser offer a whole new perspective on the underlying fundamental structures of the Europe we know today. 

In the following interview, the two historians put the key findings of their book into perspective in the light of the COVID-19 crisis. They discuss implications for the European integration, the future of the European Union and the role that experts currently play in writing the rules for Europe.

How does what’s currently happening within the European Union relate to the key findings and messages of your book? 

Wolfram Kaiser: 

Cross-border cooperation, we have found in the research for our book, is often induced and becomes accelerated by functional incentives to find solutions to common technical or scientific problems. The development of railways in the nineteenth century, for example, created the need to define technical standards for linking emerging transport infrastructures for crossing borders to facilitate trade and the movement of people. Similarly, the COVID-19 virus does not stop at borders. Closing them off temporarily might help us control its spread, but it does not provide a long-term solution to fighting similar outbreaks or transnational threats of a different kind in future. I would, therefore, expect that the EU, as well as international organizations and their member-states, will revisit the allocation of competences and resources and go for more cooperative forms of planning for such medical or other emergencies in future. They provide a functional impetus for greater transnational cooperation. 

This is also a time of national responses and lack of mutual learning in times of crisis, when ideology, national culture, the character of governing elites and other ‘political’ factors can impede the more technical cooperation by experts across borders. In federal states like Germany, the COVID-19 outbreak has demonstrated how diverse these reactions can even be, at least initially, between federal states and local administrations. A crisis like this with deadly implications lends itself to politicization and its exploitation for political purposes as in the case of the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban who has instrumentalized it for a kind of executive coup d’état which must be deeply worrying for democrats. Unfortunately, such a crisis also lends itself to nationalist forms of exploitation for domestic purposes. For Trump, it is the ‘Wuhan virus’, for the Chinese was designed by the US military and implanted in China to destabilize the communist party, and some Italian populists claimed that the Germans introduced it to Italy, which fits well with their Eurozone propaganda. In such times, it takes politicians – especially of the populist variety – time to engage with experts and heed their advice, especially when their recommendations such as effectively curtailing civil liberties temporarily, can be unpopular in the short term. 

The crisis has also exposed deep fault-lines within the EU once more. Every country has been fending for itself, at least initially, scrambling to secure enough facemasks and other medical equipment for its hospitals at almost any price. In the meantime, Northern European countries have supported Italy, Spain and France with supplies and taking some of their patients in intensive care. But this form of solidarity came too late and it was too little. We need more cooperative planning and more coordinated action in any future crisis to make sure that we contain such threats and minimize deaths and their long-term socio-economic impact together. 

While some politicians call for a “new Marshallplan” to support southern Europe, other EU member states want to maintain strict regulations when it comes to using European emergency funds. French President Emmanuel Macron has warned that a lack of solidarity might endanger the European Union as a whole. What is your assessment of the situation, what are possible implications for the European Integration and what is the way forward? 

Johan Schot: 

Macron is right, this lack of solidarity may endanger the EU. The problem is that this lack of solidarity is deeply embedded in the structure of the EU. While people are willing to show solidarity with other Europeans, they do not trust the EU. 

The EU has a technical and a political side, as for example the story of Englebert Hondelink in my Podcast illustrates. The original idea was that through collaborating on technical or functional issues (such as agriculture, transport, energy) a space for more political collaboration would emerge. Our book Writing the Rules for Europe describes the history of this idea, and how it has been put in practice in a large number of international organizations. We call this technocratic internationalism. Before the Great War, many people also thought that such a war would not be possible anymore, because the world has become too connected through technical infrastructures and networks. 

The so-called spillover from the technical to the political has not only proven to be a wrong assumption, it has also alienated the people from European solidarity. They don’t feel connected to the EU, and I can understand why: they have never been fully involved in building the EU. Moreover, the separation of the technical and political allows national parties and leaders to blame the EU, in particular the European Commission, for what goes wrong (even if the Commission just responds to the demands of national governments). 

What is the way forward? Can we use the crisis to reform the EU? My view is that we need radical steps, not just marginal reforms. One option is to move more political power to the EU. I do not think this is realistic, there is too much resistance from the people, built up over the years, there is no democratic basis for this move. The second option is to separate the technical/functional and political side, hence to focus the EU on technical issues only, and accept that it will never become anything close to a United European State. The political process of European unification can then happen in a new process, perhaps even outside the EU. Countries who want more political unification and solidarity can start a new project. At the moment this option is also not very realistic, except perhaps for the idea of a Europe of two-speeds, within the EU framework. 

I am not optimistic about future prospects for deep reform since the EU structures are deeply technocratic. So the best way forward is for the EU to become more modest and accept its limitations. Strangely enough, this may create space for a renewed emphasis on building European solidarity outside the EU, since we conflate the EU with Europe, while in reality, many Europes may exist. 

With our analysis of technocratic tendencies in the history of the EU, we do not want to say that we do not need experts, and technocracy, on the contrary, we need them, and in fact, it is time to rethink and rebuild the relationship between technocracy and democracy, not only in international relations but also nationally. 

Wolfram Kaiser: 

Luckily, the crisis shows that populists have no answers when the going gets tough. In many countries like Italy and Germany right-wing populist parties have suffered in opinion polls since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. Most Europeans are quite happy to show solidarity. Northern Europeans might be tempted to think that Italians, for their love of social interaction and their inclination not to follow rules too strictly, likely increased the devastation that the virus has brought there. But most of them will have been reduced to tears when watching their response in the form of collective singing from balconies or, as in the case of Spain, clapping to thank the hospital personnel. 

I think, therefore, that there is a lot of goodwill among Europeans to help each other in a terrible crisis like this one. Short-term humanitarian and financial aid channelled via the EU or bilaterally is not hugely controversial. But so-called Corona bonds and common responsibility for national government debt is, of course, and for good reasons. These are especially clearly articulated in the Dutch debate, and not always very diplomatically, but the concerns are more widespread, of course. Italy essentially continues to be a failed state with an irresponsible political elite and a highly dysfunctional administration. Its society is just as dysfunctional, however, and shaped by extreme individualism. Many Italians wish for help from ‘Brussels’ but at the same time do not wish to follow rules, especially when apparently imposed by others. This is a conundrum that needs to be sorted out in Italy in my view, to create far greater trust which would then be the basis for common action in the form of sharing the responsibility for the debt. Such trust is currently in short supply. Reducing the debate to demands for solidarity from allegedly rich Northern Europeans only emotionalizes the issues at stake which is not conducive for finding solutions to common problems. 

At the moment (medical) experts are quite literally writing the rules for Europe and play a crucial role in defining and implementing European governance. Drawing from the findings in your book, how do you assess the effects this crisis might have on the “Rules for Europe” in the long run?

Wolfram Kaiser: 

I beg to differ. First, this is at best the case at national level. The EU lacks competences in this field to be able to act decisively, quite apart from the lack of agreement among the member-state governments on many issues. The European Commission can make proposals, but it has no competences or resources to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But secondly, the crisis, as I have said before, in fact, led to a politicization of expertise, which we have also described and analysed in our book. National politicians picked and chose from whoever they wanted to take advice, which was often conflicting. In the more libertarian cultures of countries like the UK, the Netherlands and Sweden, for example, governments initially refused to take harsher measures to curtail civil liberties and preferred to follow medical advice – in a minority in a global perspective – that it was enough to protect the elderly and otherwise to get on with life as usual. Politicians only acted under the pressure of rising numbers of death and adjusted their strategies as they went along. 

Crucially, we still know so little about this virus, its symptoms, its spread, possible medication and eventual vaccines to immunize populations that anyone who can claim to be a virologist or just a medical doctor, appears to feel the urge to provide expert advice. Experts often disagree, especially in their assessment of multiple futures, and this gives those with decision-making powers the opportunity to pick and choose. At some point, knowledge about this threat will become more consolidated which will likely lead to greater convergence in its analysis and adopted strategies to contain it. 

Johan Schot: 

Experts may be writing rules for Europe, but not through a mandate given by the EU. Again we should not conflate Europe with the European Union. Experts write rules within a mandate provided by national and regional or even local governments, and exchange ideas and collaborate internationally. They also choose different solutions in various countries, hence this crisis is a big collective experiment, and data is gathered on what is working best in each context. 

On the national level, the mandate is clear, national governments take decisions, while experts advise. Yet experts are criticized by other experts, and by various organizations, political parties and the people. This is, therefore, a moment to say experts do not have all the answers, there is a lot of uncertainty, people have their own responsibility and need to understand the uncertainties and be put in a position to contribute. On top of that this is not only a medical issue but also a behavioural, social, political, cultural and economic one, we also need advice from social sciences and humanities. 

On the EU level, it would be good not to try to push for a European approach in a political sense, and as Wolfram says they miss the competence. Instead, the EU can provide a learning platform for exchanging experiences. This is very valuable. 

In case there is anything pressing that you’d really like to reflect on in addition, then this is the space to do so. 

Wolfram Kaiser: 

Are we currently witnessing the ‘return of the expert’ as some have claimed? In some countries, like in the case of the UK over Brexit and its likely consequences, the rejection of any form of expertise has gone so far as to create massive self-inflicted pain. Populists from Johnson to Salvini and Trump have been adept at exploiting a strong anti-elite bias among many citizens who feel disconnected from their political elites, often even when they are and even feel well off, economically speaking. Rather than leading to a new rise of experts as a type of elite, this crisis will hopefully facilitate the transition back to a more rational public discourse and behaviour about the multiple acute common challenges that we will be facing in the EU, but also across the globe, during the next couple of decades. This could lead to a concentration of minds and new value being attached to rational-scientific thinking which could be beneficial for all. 

Johan Schot: 

I agree with Wolfram, we need to find new ways in which the people can have a dialogue with experts, and feel that they can trust them also if they have substantially different opinions. We need new forms of exchanging expertise, in what is called transdisciplinary research where knowledge of practitioners, people and experts from a wide range of disciplines work together and beg to differ. Differing views are not a problem, but also a strength. Divided we stand! This is a better motto as Unity in Diversity used by the European Union since it is not clear where this Unity would come from. The history of the technical, functional side of the EU, documented in our book, shows that it is a history of interfacing, building connections between very different ideas and systems. This is a European strength we should embrace. 

I am only cautious about the notion of rational since it should not be the experts who determine what is rational. Moreover, emotions also matter, and often steer so-called rational decision-making. Hence there is a place for emotions in any dialogue and decision-making process.

Johan Schot is Professor of Global Comparative History and Sustainability Transitions at the Utrecht University Centre for Global Challenges. Wolfram Kaiser is Professor of European Studies at the University of Portsmouth and visiting Professor at the College of Europe in Belgium.