Macron’s pan-European academy ‘welcome but needs work’

French president seeks to rejuvenate thinking about common continental identity

January 5, 2022
A man reaches for another participant in front of a giant European flag during a pro-European Union rally
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A French proposal to create a “European Academy” could help to rejuvenate efforts to build a common continental identity, academics said, but they have cautioned against duplication and exclusivity.

Under France’s presidency of the council of the European Union, which runs from this month to June 2022, President Emmanuel Macron has proposed “a ‘European Academy’ bringing together a hundred or so intellectuals from the 27 countries and from all disciplines to shed light on the European debate”. 

Thierry Chopin, professor of political science at the Catholic University of Lille, said the idea would be “to create a European structure to work on the narrative of ‘belonging’ and on common European identity, mainly through the academic world, but also by involving the cultural world more widely”.

“The idea is that there will be no European sovereignty without a sense of belonging and active identification to an EU-wide political community,” he said. “In concrete terms, I don't know if it could be a permanent structure or an annual meeting.” 

Renaud Dehousse, president of the European University Institute, a Florence-based research university created by an international treaty in 1972, said that “what is being sought is really a debate”.

“If you want to get university professors together to discuss research agenda, it’s one thing – we do this on a daily basis, and it’s great. But we’re talking of something else. We’re talking of people whose task it will be to inject new ideas,” he said.

“There is a big Macron agenda which says, ‘Let’s try to reinvent the meaning for Europe.’ Europe has been confronted for decades now, at least two decades, with a certain disenchantment, of which Brexit has been one manifestation, but only one.

“There’s a widespread awareness across Europe that this is a problem that needs to be addressed and that one needs to ask oneself what the big issues in today’s Europe are.”

Professor Dehousse argued that the new academy would be sufficiently different from Academia Europaea, a learned academy founded by 55 scholars in Cambridge in 1988, which now boasts almost 5,000 members from across the continent.

“Academia is really a learned society for academics, whereas Macron makes a different point, he wants intellectuals – thinkers, who may not be academics,” he said.

But other heads of pan-European academies had reservations. Sierd Cloetingh, professor of earth sciences at Utrecht University and president of Academia Europaea, said that restricting membership to around 100 would allow for “a little bit more than three per member state”. He also raised concerns about restricting membership to academics from within the European Union only, excluding scholars from countries such as the UK.

“If Academia Europaea would have stayed to the initial number of founders then we would not be able to function the way we are functioning today, so I see this as a first reflection from President Macron, in terms of the numbers he is mentioning and also the restriction to [the] EU,” Professor Cloetingh said.

“I have to say it sounds like something that already exists,” said Gemma Modinos, reader in neuroscience and mental health at King’s College London and chair of the Young Academy of Europe, who questioned “the level of awareness of President Macron of what already exists in terms of European-wide academies”.

The move comes as the European Universities Initiative, a Macron-led plan to create cross-border institutions, offers a third round of funding.

ben.upton@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: A case of déjà vu for Macron’s academy of intellectuals?

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