The Secrets of Bucharest’s ‘Old Town’

Bucharest is not an historic city, but it is rich in history. The distinction turns out to be important both for our understanding of Romania, politics, and historiography more generally. Emanuela Grama uses the politics that surrounded the Old Town of Bucharest over the past century to force us to reconsider the constitution of the state, the relationship between identity and ideology, and the balance in historical development between grand narratives and incremental change. Moreover, she does all this by demonstrating that the study of history and the stuff of history are rarely if ever the same.

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Why Is the ECB Politically Independent?

The recent decision by the German Constitutional Court has triggered an avalanche of commentary about the primacy of European law and about the political independence of the European Central Bank. These are important issues for debate. I am persuaded by colleagues like R. Daniel Kelemen, for example, that you cannot have a ‘rule of law’ in Europe without a clear hierarchy of legal interpretation. Hence, while I can see the point being made by the German constitutional court about its obligations to uphold the constitutional rights of German citizens, I can also see why the European Court of Justice would insist on having the last word in any assessment of whether a European institution acted within its European mandate.

By contrast, the debate about the political independence of the ECB has taken a detour. The focus lies too narrowly on whether complying with the German court would or would not violate the ECB’s political independence given the wording of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union and the Statute of the European System of Central Banks. That focus is too legal and in any event crabwalks back into the debate about the primacy of European law. The focus should lie on why the ECB is politically independent instead. Along the way, we should ask whether that independence is necessary for the ECB to forge an effective response to the current economic crisis.

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An East-West Divide in Europe?

There is a big conversation brewing about the deepening East-West divide in the European Union.  Much of this conversation started long before the pandemic.  Social scientists like R. Daniel Kelemen have been worried for a long time now about the diverging trajectories in democratic institutions and about the possible roles that European Union (EU) institutions may have played in supporting that evolution.  More recent scholarship shows how the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated that tension.  This raises questions about whether such developments were always likely to happen, and about how we can better understand East-West relations in Europe.  Fortunately, three brilliant new books promise to help in that understanding.  The first, by Larry Wolff, examines the role of Woodrow Wilson in help shaping the politics of Central and Eastern Europe.  The second, by John Connelly, explores the evolution of East European nationalism.  The third, by Lenka Bustikova, examines the problem of extreme right mobilization.  The conclusion I take away from these books is that there are important political dynamics at work in Eastern Europe that need deeper understanding; it is not that East and West are fundamentally different.  We can learn a lot from the study of Eastern Europe as we struggle to interpret developments elsewhere as well – Western Europe very much included.

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Citizens of the World and Citizens of Nowhere

During her first address to the Conservative Party as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in October 2016, Theresa May made it clear that: ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the word “citizenship” means.’ Moreover, this was not an off-the-cuff remark. As she explained at the top of the speech, May was setting out her governing philosophy. And central to that philosophy is what she called ‘the spirit of citizenship’, which she defined in terms of ‘the bonds and obligations that make … society work,’ ‘commitment to the men and women who live around you,’ and ‘recognising the social contract’ in a way that puts ‘local’ people ahead of people from ‘overseas’. That sort of thinking is attractive, but dangerous — now more than ever.

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The Future of Higher Education

Application season always makes me wonder about the future of higher education.  The business model is hard to understand.  The costs are hideous.  The sources of funds not obvious.  And there is no way to imagine that tuition alone can prepare us — by which I mean higher education in general — for the future.  This year I had the chance to speak about these issues in China with university administrators from across the Asia-Pacific region.  It was fascinating to see how much our concerns are similar.  The implication is that we all have a lot of work to do to ensure that higher education has a sustainable future.  I gave two contributions — both of which are below.

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Brexit and the British Ruling Class

The British ruling class once governed the world; now they struggle to govern the United Kingdom. The political parties are splintered, the people are divided, the institutions are in conflict, and the gap between England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland continues to widen. Worse, the British government has once again failed to negotiate to secure a majority in parliament to exit the European Union or to come up with a convincing plan for how to leave without one. Now the British head to the polls in the hopes that the people will deliver a clear verdict on how they want to proceed. The results may prove decisive. The worry is the voters may return another hung parliament — leaving the British ruling class to sort out what to do next.

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Europe’s Complicated Democracy

Europeans are heading to the polls now in one of the world’s largest and most complicated democratic experiments. Moreover, these European elections are probably the most consequential we have seen since Europeans started voting directly for members of the European Parliament in 1979. This is a good opportunity to think hard about how Europeans are represented, how they make their decisions about voting, and what kind of Europe is on offer. Three recent books suggest new and important lines of argument. Christina Schneider shows that much of the responsiveness of Europe to the voters actually takes place through the Council of the European Union; Jennifer Fitzgerald reveals how votes on the extremes are more likely to be local than national, even if they have an anti-European tinge to them; and Sergio Fabbrini argues that many of the tensions we see surrounding the European project could be resolved if we just changed the way we think about constitutional federalism. These arguments are challenging and sophisticated in ways that much of the commentary that surrounds the European elections tends not to be; they are also counterintuitive. Now that everyone is focused on Europe, it is a good time for some well-grounded, lateral thinking.

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