The United Kingdom never wholeheartedly decided to be part of the European Union, argued Mathieu Segers, professor of European Integration, at the symposium Bridges over Brexit. How can universities respond to a changing political landscape? last Friday. Ever since the beginning of the European integration process in 1950, the UK often either didn’t participate, expressed reservations or demanded a special status. From a historical perspective, then, the Brexit Britain currently seems to be heading towards is far less exceptional than many people believe it to be.
Segers concluded his talk by putting things in perspective: “In all these years, the UK never became estranged from continental Europe. Stronger even in many ways, Europe and the UK became closer allies than ever before, especially in the day-to-day lives of people. The lesson is that ‘Brexit’, in essence, is the wrong word to describe the situation of today. (…) Whatever the institutional state of affairs or the political excitement, the UK and continental Europe will find ways to build and cherish a cooperative relationship.”
Segers was one of four speakers at the seminar. Its participants included staff from both Maastricht University and the University of York, the British partner with which the UM will work closely together. Another speaker who wasn’t all doom and gloom about the impending Brexit was Thomas Christiansen, professor of European Institutional Politics at UM. While he did call it a “tragedy” that may be “quite damaging” to the economy, British industry, student mobility, research collaboration, personal lives, etc., he also pointed out that researchers and universities can take matters into their own hands. Even in the worst-case scenario of a hard Brexit, there will always be opportunities to work together – not just within networks like the one formed by Maastricht and York (see elsewhere on this page), but also on an individual basis. “We are strong and can counteract.”
Remain or leave
Certainly, there are many different ways in which universities can continue to work together – but, asked Dr. Sofia Vasilopoulou of the University of York, “will people continue to see the UK as a place to study and work? And what about my colleagues, will they remain or leave?”
Christiansen pointed out that Brexit isn’t a purely British problem. Euroscepticism and governments that attribute gains to themselves and losses to the EU also exist elsewhere in the EU. Since the Brexit referendum, however, this scepticism has lessened considerably. “What happened in the UK is a lesson for others.”
There’s much flexibility and diversity within the EU; it isn’t “one size fits all”, argued Segers and Christiansen. It’s precisely because of this amount of diversity that the EU won’t become a “superstate”, as some claim it will. “We have a patchwork in Europe that will prevent countries from exiting the EU.” It’s important to explain this to people – and universities have a role to play in this regard, many participants in the symposium agreed.
A York staff member acknowledged the role of education, but pointed out that education isn’t the holy grail. “I’m a climate researcher. In the US, you have a lot of climate critics. As it turns out, the higher their level of education, the greater their scepticism.” The influence of the media shouldn’t be underestimated either, he added: “I can’t remember one pro-EU story in the media, but I can recall many anti-EU stories. And I read the Guardian [a liberal, pro-remain newspaper]! It didn’t surprise me that a majority voted out.”
In his closing remarks, Acting Vice Chancellor and President of York Saul Tendler admitted that universities misjudged this situation. He characterised the current political climate surrounding Brexit as “damaging” (“it throws us apart”) and said that, prior to the referendum, the umbrella organisation for British universities advised its members not to take part in the “leave or remain” debate. Universities shouldn’t engage in politics, was the message. “We took this principal position based on the presumption that people would never vote to leave”, he said after the seminar. It was a mistake he won’t soon make again. “If there was a second referendum, we would seek to engage as much as possible. Academic values are important, as is academic integrity, but we could’ve shared our expert vision and shown the consequences of a Brexit, substantiated by facts. We have – as a university – a duty of care. This affects everybody.”