Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Organizing an Academic Event on the European Union: Why and How to Do It

by Andrew Weeks

European Union Studies is low in profile yet towering in potential. It should be a breakthrough field of the highest relevance. Drawing on my own experience organizing a week of events devoted to the European Union at Illinois State University (Sept. 12-15), I will summarize some obstacles and avenues to this objective.

Why is the EU relevant to Americans?  George Will wrote in a recent Newsweek editorial that, “A specter is haunting America, the specter of Europe.”1 The EU combines 27 nation states in a single political entity with a population of nearly half a billion citizens, the world’s largest economy,2 an impressive human rights record despite some challenges and setbacks,3 and social institutions that differ from ours. EU countries typically offer their citizens universal health care. Families enjoy maternity and paternity leave we lack.4 Labor unions exercise rights American unions are at risk of losing,5 even while the largest European member state economies outperform ours,6 not least in ecology and sustainability.7 Europeans work less, earn comparably,8 and therefore live better. European students receive a university education which is affordable and often free.9 Same-sex unions have been widely introduced.10 Beyond the borders of the EU in countries aspiring to membership, human rights are a precondition. This has arguably done more to spread democracy than all recent military interventions combined.11 

Two decades ago the EU heartland of Germany embarked after reunification on a public reconstruction policy reminiscent of our Depression-era New Deal. By our lights, this qualified debt-laden Germany as the sick man of Europe. Now German unemployment is at a twenty-year low while ours remains high.12 When a right-wing party wins a national election in Europe, this captures more attention than when the same member nation is pulled back toward moderation by its conformity to EU norms, as in Austria a decade ago. The euro crisis or the rise of right-wing parties drowns subdued reports of a German and French economic revival surpassing ours.13 European alarms are widely credited, European successes widely ignored. Since public works, welfare, and health care are more readily accepted in the EU than here, their opponents are haunted by the prospect of Europeanization, as if EU citizens lived under an oppressive regime. Mitch McConnell warned against it during the recent health care debate.14 He might have added, there is no popular will to abolish universal health care in Europe. One can disagree about the desirability of the European welfare state. Knowing nothing about it amounts to collective denial.

Approaching the EU from this vantage raises objections and obstacles. Are we being Eurocentric? Isn’t Europe moribund? Aren’t we politicizing? Eurocentrism is a sin of which Americans are innocent to a fault. Our real bias is our Americacentrism. Is the EU facing ruin? Those who know this for sure should be earning a fortune shortselling EU countries’ bonds. We do not. As for politics, any focus, whether on religion or evolution, on welfare or business, is no less political. The fact that the EU may (or may not) be headed for the rocks heightens its interest. We are after all in the same boat. As for the question—why Europe rather than Canada, Chile, or China?—our answer is, why not all of the above?

We do feel that a chemist who believes in some new line of drugs should not be soliciting money from companies likely to benefit from their manufacture. By the same token, we chose not to seek sponsorship from the EU for an event presenting its merits. Events which do rely on this sort of funding can be dreary and poorly attended, effective mainly in securing and justifying the funding itself. We began by approaching departments and colleges at our university for bits of funding. Our diplomatic speakers spoke without honorarium. We piggy-backed with the University of Illinois EU Center, which invited Steven Hill (author of Europe’s Promise) to speak in Urbana and paid his air fare from San Francisco. Thomas Geoghegan (author of Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?), drove down from Chicago. Going to departments even for modest sums, commits them to the success of the program. To anyone starting down this path, I would suggest beginning with student clubs and the instructors of large courses in those departments. One should ask students to attend or take an independent study, and instructors to incorporate the events into syllabi or offer credit for participation. The approach of “build it and they will come” will not work. Few students are pining away for a symposium on the EU.

Even while assuring student attendance, the organizers can also challenge expectations. We circulated a flier with the schedule printed alongside contrasting aspects of the EU and USA—“low tuition versus high tuition; universal health care versus health care limited and under attack; low military expenditures versus high expenditures and pro-war sentiments,” etc.—our last contrast was between secular, agnostic Europe and America’s public piety (and social squalor). We asked: “What do these differences mean?  Opinions range from historian Niall Ferguson’s view that Europeans have lost their work ethic along with their religious faith and military backbone, to the view that a more progressive United States of Europe is likely to dominate the 21st century.” In order to encourage attendance, I was interviewed on radio and for the student newspaper. I kept lists of former students and those I spoke with and sent out reminders when the events took place. Instead of holding a party afterward, my wife and I invited supporting faculty and administrators, as well as representatives of student organizations, on the weekend prior to EU Week to talk with us about ideas and issues. We encouraged students to attend and bring others. 

All five presentations were remarkably well attended. An event which took place within a regular weekly forum recorded the highest attendance ever for that forum. First came presentations on the historical profile of the EU by the French Consul General Graham Paul and Prof. Emanuel Rota of the University of Illinois, then a vivid presentation on “Green Europe” by the Danish deputy ambassador Anne Mette Vestergaard. Hill and Geoghegan engaged students and the public with various social and economic aspects of the EU. Students remained after an evening film to discuss its issues. In the time allowed for discussion, critical questions generated a debate on the pros and cons of the European way. Our pro-EU theses focused and raised the level of argument for and against.            

Since our objective was not simply to bring the events off but to disseminate knowledge and raise critical awareness, we podcast all five presentations and, in cooperation with the University of Illinois European Union Center, made them the basis of a state-wide high school essay contest. Students anywhere in the country have been encouraged (via electronic discussion groups) to enter the contest. This is how we cast the seeds of thought. We are waiting to see what they yield.

Andrew Weeks is a professor of German in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Illinois State University. Prior to joining the faculty of Illinois State, he earned a Ph.D. in comparative German literature from the University of Illinois and held teaching positions at the University of Illinois and Middlebury College, Vermont. In 2002, he was a recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship for teaching and research at the University of Marburg (Germany). He has also been a visiting professor at the University of Szeged (Hungary) and at the University of Graz (Austria).


1 George F. Will, “The Liberal Agenda Backfires,” Newsweek (1-24-11): 16. (back)

2 See Wikipedia, “Economy of the EU”: The economy of the EU generates a GDP of over €12,279 billion ($16,228 billion in 2010) according to the IMF, making it the world’s largest economy in the world (5-12-11). (back)


3 See Steven Hill, Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 2010), p. 215, “With its successful track record in transforming former military dictatorschips in Spain, Portugal, Turkey, and former communist countries … Europe has taken its principles of engagement and integration and begun applying them to the rest of the world.  Contrary to the Bush-Cheney doctrine of unilateralism and aggressive  bluster , Europe has practiced a patient multilateralism….” (back)

4 Hill notes, “In Europe, paid parental leave from work for both mothers and fathers is the norm, whether following childbirth or to care for a sick child.  But the U.S. is one of only 5 countries out of 173 that do not guarantee some form of paid maternity leave…” (p. 75). (back)

5 See Thomas Geoghegan, “Consider the Germans,” Harper’s Magazine (March 2010), “since 2003, it’s not China but Germany…that has either led the world in export sales or at least been tied for first.  Even as we in the US fall more deeply into the clutches of our foreign creditors - China foremost among them - Germany has create[d] a high-wage, unionized economy without shipping all its jobs abroad or creating …any trade deficit at all.” (back)
6 See Mark Leonard, Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century (New York: Public Affairs, 2005), p. 71-72, “For the individual worker in Europe, wages have grown more than for his or her counterpart in the United States – even during the miracle decade of the 1990s.  GDP per head has risen at almost the same level..but Americans have had to work longer hours and take shorter holidays to keep up with their European counterparts.” (back)

7 Hill: “In March 2007, the heads of all 27 EU nations met and, led by German chancellor Angela Merkel…agreed to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent and to make renewable energy sources 20 percent of the E.U.’s energy mix by 2020 (up from a 6.5 percent share, which was already twice that of the United States” (p. 158). (back)

8 To say that Europeans earn “comparably” is admittedly a very loose measure, considering that average incomes on either side of the Atlantic fall between extremes of high and low and vary from country to country in Europe.  The point is that Europeans and Americans both have overwhelmingly middle-class societies in which most people can afford cars, refrigerators, and residences that are better than subsistence-level.  In America this requires many more days of work and much less vacation time per year.  See Hill, p. 68. (back)

9 Hill: “In most parts of Europe, university tuition remains free or nearly free.”  Britain is closer to the United States; but a recent hike caused violent protest.  In Germany, some states began charging as much as $650 a year in tuition; however, there is now a push, at least partly successful, to abolish tuition.  “But in the US the average annual tuition for a 4-year university in 2007-8 was $ 23,712 for private college $ 6,185 for a public college.  As a result of soaring costs, U.S. students graduate on average with $ 20,000 in debt,” a figure that more than doubled since 1995” (p. 84); for figures on tuition costs in EU countries see: http://www.studyineurope.eu/tuition-fees. (back)

10 According to Wikipedia, “Same-Sex Marriages are legal in Belgium, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, and Spain.  Civil unions and registered partnerships are legal in Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.  They are a subject of debate in Italy, Greece, the Baltic Republics, and several former East Bloc countries.  (back)

11 See Leonard, pp. 5, 109. (back)

12 Jack Ewing, “Germany’s Low Unemployment Rate Stokes Inflation Fears,” New York Times, April 29, 2011, B4, “German unemployment fell to its lowest level in two decades in April….”; David Leonhardt, “The German Example,” New York Times, June 8, 2011, B1. (back)

13 See Paul Geitner, “Germany and France Bolster the European Economy,” and Floyd Norris, “A Jobs Recovery Is Happening Faster for Some Countries than for Others,” New York Times, Business, Saturday, May 14, 2011, B3. (back)

14 See online, Real Clear Politics, Health Reform Makes US More Like Europe - Thank Goodness,” by Richard Cohen, “Mitch McConnell is right. The Republican Senate leader, a man whose vision is to deny others theirs, told The New York Times that President Obama's health care proposal was part of an attempt to ‘turn us into a Western European country,’ which, the good Lord willing, is what will now happen.  I, for one, could use a dash of Germany, where there are something like 200 private health insurance plans and where everyone is covered and no one goes broke on account of bad health.” (back)



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