The teaching of EU and International Politics in Italy and abroad: a personal experience

Throughout my career I have had the opportunity to get to know four university systems – those of the US, Norway, Austria and Italy – from direct experience either as a student or as a lecturer (or both). Unfortunately, at various stages of my career, I was interested in slightly different sub-disciplines of political science, so my impressions are more spotty than what would be ideal in order to draw a systematic comparison between these systems. So, please, take the following as anecdotal evidence at best. My personal experience may in fact put me at a particular disadvantage for the task at hand – assessing the teaching of EU and International Politics abroad – as I will try to show.

When I was studying for my doctorate in Political Science in the United States I was unfortunately not very interested in European or International Politics, as my main fields of specialization were Political Economy and Comparative Politics – and this may have been just as well. At MIT, International Relations were a big subject: the Department of Political Science had been created basically as an intelligence-gathering unit for the CIA and the Secretary of State during World War II, so the type of IR studied there was familiarly designated as “bombs and rockets”. After the war, it was felt that a different type of knowledge was needed, so the Department began to develop comparative politics, political economy, public policy and the other political science sub-disciplines. Unfortunately, the strong mainstream IR and CP traditions had attracted to MIT scholars who considered the nation-state as the main significant unit of analysis, thus preventing them from appreciating the innovativeness of the European integration project. As a consequence, no one taught EU studies at MIT at least until the mid-1990s (and even now it remains a marginal focus). Much attention was rather devoted to the comparative analysis of individual economic and political systems and their interrelations, so that through the backdoor of International Political Economy some (trade and production related) international politics crept back in.

During those years I gained an appreciation for the interconnectedness of domestic and international policies: in particular, I learnt how international developments affect domestic politics – what was at the time termed, with Peter Gourevitch, the “second image reversed” – and these in turn shape international developments. Even at Harvard, where I spent some time at the Center for European Studies, “European studies” meant the study of Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain (and, occasionally, some other countries), but hardly of the European Union. After all, at Harvard taught Stanley Hoffmann, who thought that the nation-state had not become “obsolete” as a consequence of the European integration project, and Andrew Moravcsik, who has always considered the Union fundamentally as an exceptionally institutionalized international organization, but an international organization nevertheless. Frankly, I had heard more about the European Economic Community during my Economics studies at Bocconi in the 1980s when, at least, I attended the course of Economics of the European Community taught then by Carlo Secchi.

My second experience took me possibly even further away from EU studies than my American years. My first teaching appointment was at the University of Tromsø, Norway, the “northernmost university in the world”. I arrived in September 1994, when the campaign «Nej til EU» (“No to the EU”) was in full swing. The October 1994 referendum gave the expected negative result (with 80% of the voters opposed to joining the EU in northern Norway) just a couple of months after both Sweden and Finland had voted instead to join. The University of Tromsø had no political science course in EU studies – again, only in International Relations conventionally understood and in Comparative Politics – and did not feel the need to activate one. The powerhouse for the study of the European Union, in Norway, was obviously located in Oslo, within the ARENA (Advanced Research on the Europeanization of the Nation State) project. Johan P. Olsen, Erik Oddvar Eriksen, John Erik Fossum and many others had understood the significance of the European Union and were supporting and conducting research on it. Once again, I could nevertheless gain a certain insight into some of the issues that occupied also EU scholars by interacting with my Norwegian colleagues interested in the Nordic fisheries regimes and with the joint governance arrangements, among the states at the borders of the Northern Calotte, regarding commercial routes and ecological issues linked to the Arctic and the North Pole. While the common border with Russia still steered IR research and teaching interests towards fairly classic security studies, the post-1989 context was simultaneously re-directing my IR colleagues towards the exploration of new governance regimes and constructivist theories. Interestingly, I witnessed for the first time in my professional experience a serious commitment towards lifelong learning, with the training of military personnel stationed in the numerous military bases in the Arctic for the new tasks that awaited them, such as peace-keeping and environmental security.

It was only when I spent two years at the European University Institute (EUI) as visiting fellow that I was fully exposed to EU studies. What a steep learning curve did I have to climb! There, everyone knew obviously everything about the Union. These were the years during which the supranational approach of Wayne Sandholtz and Alec Stone-Sweet yielded the two volumes in the Oxford University Press series and identity and citizenship issues were being explored by Thomas Risse and Anna Triandafyllidou, respectively, and by many others. And, yet, for another wicked twist of events, not even then did I engage directly with European studies. I rather approached EU studies from the backdoor, through my interest in regional development policy, studying cohesion policy and ultimately multi-level governance (or, as I called it back then, being still influenced by my studies on clientelism, informal governance). Yet, EU studies were all around me. While clearly not by any means an EU expert, I realized that I could still make a contribution by offering insights, suggesting mechanisms and asking questions that I derived from my cultivation of comparative politics. The European Union offered to the comparativist an ideal context in which one could study the responses of the various member states or of the various regions to identical stimuli. This agenda, that we could today indicate with the label of Europeanization studies, has been the obvious port of entry from comparative politics into EU studies. Moreover, I came to realize at EUI that EU studies are at least as much a field of political science as they are a field of law, something that struck me at the time as rather bizarre (no more).

My real training in EU studies, then, has taken place while at the University of Trento thanks to the research that I carried out with colleagues at that and other universities (Siena, Milano, Pavia) in a series of PRIN projects and in a series on EU-funded projects with colleagues of other European universities and, finally, teaching courses in EU Politics and Theories of European Integration at Master’s and PhD level in Trento. It is true that you do not really learn something until you have to teach it! But once again, perhaps because I taught to students with a mixed social science background, teaching EU studies was more an exercise in questioning received wisdom than simply passing on scholarly certainties. What emerged with extreme clarity was that the distinction between the two disciplines that have dominated Political Science during the postwar period – Comparative Politics and International Relations – had become blurred and that EU scholars need to be conversant with both of them as well as with other disciplines. Ontological and epistemological certainties were also shaken, first and foremost the centrality of the nation-state as an agent of regulation and change.

But the real jump to EU studies was marked for me by my accepting the Chair in European Integration Politics at the University of Innsbruck in 2010. There my entire teaching load had to do, one way or another, with the EU at BA, MA and PhD levels. Also in Innsbruck, though, the MA curriculum in European Politics did not offer many teachings that would be necessary to form real EU experts. Next to the fundamental knowledge of EU institutions, procedures and processes, students should also really learn EU politics, that is patterns of domestic and transnational mobilization around EU issues, Euro-parties and European elections, inter-institutional bargaining, political theory of integration processes, and so on. It is very rare to find in Italy (and even abroad, at least judging from my own experience) curricula that offer the full gamut of topics necessary to form veritable EU experts.

What then can I conclude from my personal experience? Admittedly, it has been a very peculiar experience which has not taken me to the real hubs of EU studies. Still, there are a number of conclusions I may tentatively draw. First, EU studies offer a wonderful opportunity for broadening one’s scientific horizons: one has to study many political science sub-disciplines and also venture into related disciplines, but most certainly one must escape the strictures of the dichotomy between International Relations and Comparative Politics. Second, it may not be a bad idea to cultivate a certain breadth of knowledge beyond the European Union, as this remains a political project that may eventually be challenged and even peter out. Third, we never stop learning, and we learn most when we have to teach.

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