1. During your academic and professional career, you have been in the United States as a visiting fellow, a visiting scholar, and a guest lecturer at various universities. What was your first impression of this country and of New York when you first visited? As a scholar of political science, do you find that people in Europe engage in politics differently than in the U.S.? If so, in what ways?
This question raises a number of important and topical points… I first visited New York when I myself was a student. Then, I stayed with a friend who was doing an internship. When I first came to New York, I found it incredibly noisy, dirtier than the usual European cities, very crowded, very hectic, and very, very expensive. But I also liked it, and I spent two busy and very impressive weeks visiting and sightseeing. Then I came back to New York more than ten years later as a recent postdoc together with a colleague and friend. We made the mistake of staying in a hotel that was within the budget restrictions of the scholarship we were travelling on, so it was very run-down and over-heated, and also extremely expensive in our terms (this is, of course, particularly striking when you are a student or a recent postdoc). Despite this, on this second visit I came to like New York even more: we took the Staten Island ferry, wandered around, sat in Greenwich Village cafes, we went to a jazz bar and so on… In 2018 I first came to Deutsches Haus for a discussion event, and this visit brought me back to the part of New York that for me is among the nicest, the area around NYU. When I was a Visiting Fellow at Harvard in spring 2019, I came once more, for tourism with my family and for a guest talk. My family liked New York very much, but my kids (8 and 10 then) also found it, very similar to me on my first visit, crowded, hectic and noisy…still, we visited the Empire State Building and Central Park, and we took the Staten Island Ferry, and this left a lasting impression on all of us. I showed the Stonewall Inn to my kids and explained that this was a place for a fight over civil rights, and they kept this in mind. We only stayed three days, and it motivated me to return for a longer period. All in all, I can say that I came to like the city more with every visit! This time, I really regretted very much that I had to leave because of the Corona outbreak after only 10 days, having barely started the fellowship.
For the second part of the question, I would definitely answer yes, but there are two different perspectives, one regarding “people” and one regarding academics. Regarding “people,” it is obvious that the political atmosphere in the U.S. is split, it is heated, and there is much aggression. Politics seems to be very much an affair of quasi-religious convictions, not of civilized dispute. Resentments on all sides are very strong. This tendency is still much less developed in Europe. Regarding “academics,” there are a lot of things I prefer in the American way of doing political science. First and foremost, the fact that it is appreciated and can increase your reputation if you engage with real politics – this is something that is still often negatively judged in European academia. Communicating research results, discussing with politicians or journalists, or – beware! – publishing books for a broad audience (instead of peer-reviewed articles in very, very specialized journals only) does not earn you any reputation, and it can even destroy it! This always struck me as strange: we are engaging with politics and society – so why should we keep an artificial distance in this respect just because it would seem that we are leaving the ivory tower when we do so?
2. Your primary field of research is European politics. What led you to pursue this particular field? Are there specific aspects of European politics that fascinate you?
To be true, I am a convinced European! I think that European unification and the European way of life is a great success model, and that the idea to integrate states in a supranational community has been a major invention in history because it helped us to stop wars in Europe. Then, I was an exchange student, paid for partly by Erasmus, the EU´s mobility program. I tremendously enjoyed my year abroad, in France, in Caen. It earned me my best study year, a bucket full of good memories, a lifelong love for France, a lasting friendship and a godson (salut, Steph et Côme!!!). I then first studied economics and finance and did my second degree in political science. During my studies, it became clear to me that I wanted to focus on the politics of Europe and democracy in Europe. This means not only the European Union, but also its member states. My judgement is that European politics in many respects is a success model – because of the long-lasting peace in Europe, because of democracy, a well-developed welfare state (I learned that many U.S. academics classify this as “socialism”) in combination with economic prosperity and multilateralism. This is fascinating, and I see myself as an advocate of this model.
3. You have also been to Finland as a researcher, fellow, visiting scholar, and adjunct professor at the University of Jyväskylä. Why did you decide to go to Finland? Do you think that your experiences in Finland shaped your understanding of European politics in ways that you would not come across in Germany?
I did not find Finland – Finland found me, in the shape of my most important academic mentor, Prof. Kari Palonen, now emeritus. I became a member of a young researcher´s network financed by the European Science Foundation when I was a Ph.D. student. Kari Palonen chaired this network, and we have been continually collaborating since then. He invited me as a short-term visiting fellow two times, then I became a Marie Curie fellow at Jyväskylä University. This program again has an EU connection. The EU every years gives these Marie Curie fellowships, i.e. two-year research positions, to researchers after a competitive process. It is a great privilege because you receive a good salary and an allowance for travels and research for a precious research-only period. I then became adjunct professor at Jyväskylä University in 2014, which is a lifelong affiliation.
My Finnish affiliation of course shaped my view on Europe, especially in the sense that I learned from the core how people and academics at the EU periphery discuss and experience the EU. Finland has a culture different from the German one. This, after close experiences with the French culture, helps to understand how politics is shaped by different backgrounds in each EU state.
4. In recent years, Germany has taken an active, if not a more dominant role in the European Union and European politics in general, especially with the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU. Yet at the same time, Germany is also experiencing its share of rising Eurosceptic populism, namely in the form of the AfD. What factors have led these extreme right-wing elements to develop such antagonistic views towards the European Union? What changes will the pro-EU parties, both in and outside of the government, have to implement to prevent these Eurosceptic, alt-right movements from prevailing?
This is a big question, impossible to fully answer in a couple of lines…to try and summarize: AfD is fueled by the approximately 15 to 25% of people in almost each country almost all over the world that we know have an extreme-right orientation in their values. This number is a standard truth in opinion research. The European Union, on the other hand – and this is a current topic in my research – is a good target for the extreme-right. It is strongly elite-dominated, in a number of respects: led by supranational politicians and people like me who speak three or more languages, travel all along, and seemingly do not care about the average person’s life. And it is true that I benefitted a lot from the EU, concretely by various scholarships – I do not think the same can be said of the French employee at the formerly state-owned French gas company who loses their job because of privatizations induced by EU law! So AfD, just like the other anti-EU parties, dwells on such aspects, mixes them with conspiracy theories, and the result is anti-EU resentment. However, I must say that neither in Germany nor in France do the extreme rights claim to want to exit the EU, as they know citizens would never support this. So the limit themselves at cheap EU criticism – cheap in the sense of generalized prejudices without much practical value. Regarding the changes mainstream parties should induce, my answer – and this is also what I concluded in my last publications, is twofold. We need a more democratic and transparent and a more social and effective Europe.
5. The United States has also been in a comparable situation, especially since 2016, with a government hostile to open immigration policies, adverse to multilateralism, and skeptical even of its closest allies. To what extent would you say are the recent political developments and tendencies towards right-wing populism similar in Europe and the United States? Are these trends interrelated?
They are definitely both – similar and interrelated. Coming back to what I answered on the first question, I would still say that the political landscape is much more split in the U.S. than in Europe. The interrelatedness is underlined by the fact that Donald Trump openly supports politicians that are either Eurosceptics or openly anti-EU.
6. Your upcoming book with co-authors Corrado Macchiarelli, Mara Monti and Sebastian Diessner is on “The European Central Bank between Financial Crisis and Populisms.” As a brief sneak preview, what changes do you think will be implemented by the European Central Bank under Christine Lagard’s leadership to respond to the recent wave of Eurosceptic populism?
This is definitely difficult to predict – for now, she has taken up the issue and starts a series of discussions and consultations, and she has also underlined that the Euro is the currency of the EU´s citizens. But we must be aware – and we say this in our book – that it is not the ECB’s primary job to be a political actor. The ECB acted this way by necessity during the financial crisis, but, at least in European thinking, the ECB’s job is to safeguard monetary stability, full stop. So if they are wise, they keep an eye on what fuels and what stops Eurosceptic populism – but my very serious claim is that to combat it is primarily a task for elected politicians and also us, the citizens! The ECB in this context should help to set the conditions, which brings us back to the financial crisis and the European success model: austerity has contributed to cutting down social services in a number of countries. Concretely, hospital beds have been cut in Italy and Spain, the two countries (besides the UK) that experienced the highest death toll due to Corona. There are a number of indicators, as we discuss in the book, that such an austerity strategy is neither effective nor liked by the population. So the ECB should return to its original role and set incentives for strengthening the European success model, rather than for weakening it.
7. If we may ask, what is your next project and how were you hoping that your time here in New York as a DAAD Visiting Scholar at Deutsches Haus at NYU would contribute to your research and/or inspire new ideas for future projects?
My visit, as I said, was much shorter than planned – I fled New York on March 10th instead of March 31st as planned because of the pandemic outbreak. So I carried out the last steps of a book on politicization when back in Germany, where I was confined in my home office with two kids in what is nowadays called “home schooling.” This has slowed down creative thinking! Actually I had planned to get some inspiration by the talks and discussions I had planned in the U.S., and I surely hope to be able to repeat them in the near future.
In the immediate, I am working on research applications together with my team at Fulda University. When we submit these, I have the idea in the back of my mind to write an academic book for a broader public that discusses the EU’s crisis…let’s see!