Stem populism by embracing dissent, universities told

Expert on EU warns academics against a ‘Brussels monopoly’ over how they research the union

March 13, 2017
Far-right protesters
Source: Alamy

Universities can help staunch growing populism in Europe by opening up a space for “legitimate dissent” on campus for concerns about the European Union and immigration, according to a prominent thinker on the EU.

So far, many researchers and institutions have tended to support the EU unconditionally, argued Luuk van Middelaar, previously a speechwriter and adviser to former European Council president Herman Van Rompuy and now a professor of EU law and European studies at Leiden University and the Université Catholique de Louvain.

Critics of the EU have been smeared as hostile to the entire project, he told A Vision for Europe? Research, Innovation and the Democratic Deficit, a debate on how universities should respond to populist politics held in Brussels on 7 March.

“Universities should take care to avoid...a Brussels monopoly on the way the EU is conceived and researched and discussed,” Professor van Middelaar, the author of The Passage to Europe: How a Continent Became a Union, a history of the EU, explained to Times Higher Education after the debate.

The EU puts “a lot of money” into researching Europe, he said, for example through its network of Jean Monnet chairs. Brexit campaigners have alleged that these academic positions have been used to spread pro-EU ideology, something that post-holders deny.

A homogeneity of views was dangerous, because it would mean denying populists a space for what Professor van Middelaar called “legitimate” opposition to the EU – or on other issues like immigration – which would in turn drive them towards opposing the legitimacy of the entire political order.

“Populism is not a nature-given phenomenon, it’s also the result of a lack of opposition and the possibility for dissent,” he argued.

Universities’ democratic mission is therefore to allow “legitimate dissent” on these issues to be voiced, he argued during the debate.

His comments come as universities in Europe and the US have been accused of liberal bias; for example, right-wing parties in the Dutch parliament recently passed a motion asking the government to investigate whether there is “self-censorship” and a “limitation of diversity of perspectives” in the Netherlands’ universities.

Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research Intensive Universities and moderator of the Brussels debate, acknowledged that it was “fair to say that leadership [of Euroscepticism] hasn’t come out of universities” and that universities need to become “much more comfortable” about engaging with those who hold “fundamentally” different views. But he also argued that universities are also “naturally more cosmopolitan” places.

Another theme that emerged in the debate was the need to move away from an exclusive focus on universities helping to provide jobs, growth and innovation, in favour of “European universities as truth-seeking and trust-building institutions”, he explained.

This is something the guild hopes will influence the EU’s Ninth Framework Programme, which will replace the current Horizon 2020 research and innovation funding package in 2021. In a paper it published earlier this month, it argued that “enhanced knowledge not only sustains economic growth; it provides sorely needed understanding of social change and cultural uncertainty, and it facilitates trust in the very essence of public life and its institutions”.

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