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Flag_of_Europe_largeOn Saturday 2nd March Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations hosted its inaugural Alumni Conference. Former politics students were welcomed to the Manor Road Building for the chance to discuss the issue of Europe with the very best political scientists – past, present and future – that the University has to offer. Although this was a conference organised for the benefit of alumni, it could equally have served as an event to attract prospective students, such was the calibre of the speakers and the quality of debate. Click here to listen to recordings of presentations and to view speakers’ slides.

After Professor Stephen Whitefield, Head of the Department, had welcomed conferees and explained the current work and structure of the DPIR, he introduced the first speaker, Lord Stewart Wood, Emeritus Fellow in politics, former adviser to Gordon Brown, and currently Shadow Minister without Portfolio. Lord Wood spoke about the various crises at the heart of the EU, whose current focus is the survival of the Euro rather than planning implementation of a further grand vision. The central problem of the Euro is that monetary union without wider economic union brought political and economic stresses, yet the imposition of any centralised fiscal power would test the limits of political tolerance inside the Eurozone.

Lord Wood saw the recent Eastleigh by-election result, in which the Conservatives were pushed into third place by UKIP, as characteristic of the current political reality that the issue of Europe, which used to threaten the unity of the Labour Party, is now doing the same to the Tories, torn between pro-European economic liberalism and anti-European nationalism. As for David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on his ‘new settlement with Europe’, Lord Wood believed that if any treaty changes happen they would be limited to technical change of how the Eurozone works, but he believed that if Cameron is re-elected and pressed ahead with the referendum the UK would vote to stay in the EU.  For all its innate Euroscepticism, the British electorate would ultimately not be persuaded about the viability or attraction of life outside the EU.

The next discussion centred on the political economy of the euro-crisis and was led by Professor David Rueda and Professor David Soskice of the LSE (and formerly Nuffield College).

Professor Rueda set the scene: in times of economic hardship, when GDP is falling, the European social model should mitigate the impact of a rise in unemployment and inequality with a concomitant increase in benefit spending, however this model, which held until the 1990s, is no longer the case, except in a few countries such as Spain and Ireland. Welfare has been largely replaced by workfare, and benefit is conditional, forcing people into low-status jobs. The argument often cited – that more resources have been invested in training to counteract the reduction in unemployment benefit – is not supported empirically. Ironically, only the USA has reacted to the economic crisis with greater welfare generosity to offset the effects of unemployment.

Professor Rueda also revealed research he has carried out on ‘welfare chauvinism’, that is, the connection between feelings for and against redistribution and levels of immigration. Put another way, we don’t want to give benefits to people who are not like us. Professor Rueda’s studies show that the poor are in favour of redistribution in countries with both high and low immigration, whereas the rich are much less supportive of redistribution where levels of immigration are high.

Professor Soskice addressed the strange equilibrium that exists between the demands of northern countries for austerity and the acceptance of its implementation among southern countries. According to Professor Soskice, Germany’s economy depends upon a culture of export, deep-skills training for young people linked to companies, and a tacit understanding among trade unions of the need for moderation in wage bargaining to support the Bundesbank’s tough stance on inflation. Germany has offered Spain, Greece and Portugal a trade-off between fiscal and budgetary reform and austerity, but the middle classes reject reform in favour of an austerity which will hit the lower classes the hardest. Yet the recent elections in Italy have shown that this equilibrium has collapsed in that country at least, where austerity has been so punitive to the middle classes.

The repercussions for the Eurozone of Italy’s electoral crisis are great: France will have to decide whether to counter the orthodoxy of austerity, push for economic expansion, and potentially end up with a monetary cleavage, in which Germany and the northern countries will have one currency and France and the southern countries another. In such circumstances, would there be a Bretton Woods-type arrangement between the two currencies? Would there be a flight of currency away from France, Italy and Spain at the prospect of a breakaway?

The next discussion saw Professor Anne Deighton, Sir Michael Arthur, former Ambassador to Germany and High Commissioner to India, and former MPhil student Maximilian Ruhenstroh-Bauer debate the case for greater integration in the EU. Professor Deighton set the current debate about the future of the EU in its historical and global context: the world is one of international organisations and the EU, born of a post-war crisis and containing many countries struggling to deal with their colonial heritage, should be a united foreign policy actor. Sir Michael detailed the areas where tensions are driving us to choose more not less Europe, including globalisation and the euro-crisis. Europe should unite to punch above its weight in a multipolar world.

Mr Ruhenstroh-Bauer told of his experiences in the EEAS Crisis Response Department, and specifically in the case of Mali. He felt that the opaqueness in chains of command and the ambiguity in roles and competences which he witnessed in the EEAS meant the organisation had not fulfilled its potential and would be overcome only by greater integration, although he saw little problem in France’s unilateral intervention in Mali.

The first afternoon session was led by Professor Catherine de Vries, who explained the results of her extensive work into Eurosceptic parties and voters. When introducing her talk, Professor Jan Zielonka highlighted the fundamental issues: established parties have lost ground everywhere, while the new parties disagree on everything except their dislike of Europe; power has shifted from Brussels to Frankfurt and Berlin, yet Germany is unwilling to assume its hegemonic role in the continent; Europe’s elite are totally out of touch with its citizens; and we need a new paradigm for Europe, including a theory of disintegration.

Professor de Vries explained that overall support for the EU has been stable over the past decades, but the image of the EU is much less positive than it was. She characterised people’s overall attitude towards Europe as one of ambivalence, and that they take their cues from the media and national parties. Unfortunately those parties are not rallying pro-EU sentiment. On the left and right there is increasing Euroscepticism, while parties of the centre, although they are generally more favourable to Europe than more extreme parties, are less positive that they have been in the past.

Professor Vernon Bogdanor followed and spoke about the history of the UK’s relationship with the EU and the question of David Cameron’s proposed referendum. The fundamental question for Britain has always been whether it belongs in Europe or not. By the time of the British accession in 1973 it was in a position of weakness, with the Common Agricultural and Common Fisheries Policies already introduced. The UK’s overriding concern ever since has been to retain its cherished parliamentary sovereignty; other member-states, with their consensual, working legislatures, do not view the problem of membership in the same light. Cameron’s referendum promise may well not prevent the Conservatives from breaking up, but, if Labour wins the next election, the Tories will probably campaign for a ‘no’ vote anyway. Only time will tell.

The final segment of the conference was an opportunity for the Department to show off two of its most talented young academics. Theresa Kuhn, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Nuffield College, and Claudia Schrag Sternberg, Career Development Fellow at St Hugh’s, presented their latest work.

Dr Kuhn discussed her quantitative research into Karl Deutsch’s Transactionalist Theory, which states that cross-border transactions foster a common identity, trust, and regime support. Dr Kuhn argues that empirically that there has been no increase in pro-European feeing despite the wealth of such transactions, and that Deutsch’s theory needs three important qualifications: first, benefits of cross-border transaction may be identifiable individually but are characterised by high social stratification; second, not all forms of European interaction are effective in fostering common identity; and third, in some cases people react negatively and actually become more nationalistic and less European.

Dr Schrag Sternberg’s research has focused on the issue of EU legitimacy since the 1950s. She has found that the processes by which we construct meaning in the concept of legitimacy are decisive in how much legitimacy we accord the EU. In other words, everything depends on what Europeans mean by legitimacy, and the story of the continuing struggle for such legitimacy is the story of the on-going relationship between citizens and political power. She argues that legitimacy entails an acknowledgement of contestation in EU policy, and an acceptance that there are winners and losers in the process.

In his closing remarks, Dr David Hine, who organised the conference, said that conferees had had a rich and fruitful day of discussion, and that the conference had shown how both political scientists and the general public have changed the way they view Europe. He hoped that DPIR would continue its mission to understand the complex picture of Europe and strive to attract and support top-quality research.

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