From Where I Sit - Silence on Europe is deafening

November 22, 2012

Few stories have so dominated the news in recent years as Europe's sovereign debt crisis. We have been faced with a torrent of bad news and warnings ranging from worries about contagion within the eurozone to suggestions that the European Union itself might be threatened.

But while it has been a busy time for political leaders, journalists, bloggers and thinktanks, scholars of European studies have been conspicuous by their absence (or at least by the modesty of their presence). While the media have been abuzz with analyses that are often confused and speculative, surprisingly little has been heard from those whose full-time job is to understand Europe.

This is hardly a new problem. There was mystification in the 1990s over the failure of scholars to predict or even fully to understand the end of the Cold War, and the roll call of missing in action has continued: democracy in South Africa, international terrorism, environmental change, failing states, reversals in Russia, the Arab Spring and so on.

The eurozone crisis is just the latest in a long line of dramatic political and economic developments on which academia has remained strangely silent. This isolation is the result of a single core paradox: in an era when scholars are obliged to prove and illustrate the impact of their work on society, they continue to be subject to pressures that guarantee the exact opposite effect.

Publishing an article in a journal that only a few co-specialists might ever read is valued far more highly than the ability to help the public understand the challenges of the day. And the greatest disdain has always been reserved for scholars who reach a general audience and dare to popularise their subject.

Furthermore, as often as not researchers are focused on the narrow at the expense of the broad, writing in arcane language that places much academic work beyond the reach of the uninitiated. And many are too focused on developing and debating theories to be concerned with how they might be tested in practice. The result: scholars spend most of their time speaking only to themselves.

This is especially troublesome in the case of the eurozone crisis because it is clear that few people understand how the EU works or fully grasp the implications of its policies. This is particularly evident in the UK, where Euroscepticism runs rampant.

Judicious and informed criticism is, of course, a legitimate and essential part of the debate about Europe, but too much of the discussion is based on myths and misinformation. Partisans seek out only those data that fit with their worldview, journalists often sacrifice depth for brevity, politicians leave out inconvenient truths, and academics are failing to step into the breach in support of informed debate.

There is a school of thought in political studies that uninformed citizens can make up for their perplexity by relying on cues from political leaders, parties, the media and others. But not only does this feed into the elitism of which the EU is so often accused by its critics, it also overlooks the problem of the selective interests of those from whom we supposedly take our cues. The knowledge deficit on Europe thus grows ever wider.

Public debates that are misinformed or misguided are worse than unhelpful, and in few instances are the problems so dire as in the debate over Europe. Scholars have much to offer that would shed new and constructive light on what Europe means, but there are few professional incentives for them to step up to the microphone. A change in priorities is clearly in order.

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