Teaching Europe: An Interview with Cathie Jo Martin and Vivien Schmidt

This is part of our special feature on The Crisis of European Integration.

I still remember the excitement of changing US dollars, not to Finnish markkas, but to euros, during a yearly trip to see my Finnish relatives in 2002. The promise and hope that European Union membership held for a small country like Finland was a sentiment that even a young girl could sense. Today, the questions circulating among EU citizens and policymakers do not concern a deepening or expansion of the EU, but rather how the EU will move forward in a post-Brexit era. From the Eurozone crisis to the governance challenges posed by immigration, the tension between national and EU-level sovereignty has never been more apparent. Yet, Cathie Jo Martin and Vivien Schmidt – two professors at Boston University who have dedicated their careers to understanding the politics of Europe – explain that in some ways, these crises have brought to the surface a democratic deficit that had been there all along. In addition to sharing their thoughts on the importance of more transparent decision-making processes and greater allowance for national differentiation within the EU framework, Cathie and Vivien offer insight into how their teaching of Europe has changed amidst the various crises. It was a privilege and delight to interview two scholars whose work has so immensely contributed to our understanding of European politics.

— Briitta van Staalduinen for EuropeNow


EuropeNow What first interested you about studying Europe and/or the European Union (EU)? How was European integration taught to you?

Cathie Jo Martin So, Vivien knows more about the EU than anyone I know. She was chair of the European Union Studies Association, for example. I know something about some European countries. I was chair of the Council for European Studies (CES) and know the national level better than the European level.

Vivien Schmidt But importantly, we both started out from the same place – from comparative politics. I focused on France first, but it became impossible to study France without understanding the EU. By the mid-1990s, it became increasingly clear to me that you cannot understand the national level without understanding the EU in a whole range of areas. So, the question of how European integration was taught to us – neither of us ever had it taught because it was before most people were interested.

Cathie Jo Martin Right. We knew about the European Economic Community but the Treaty of Maastricht happened in 1991 – we were already professors by then. So, the way I really learned about the EU was through the CES and talking to people there about what was going on.

Vivien Schmidt And in the 1990s, the study of European integration was basically focused on, “Who are the drivers of integration?” It was very much intergovernmentalists versus supranationalists in interminable debates that got nowhere. It was only in the early 2000s that the national and the EU are actually connected, with a move from European integration to Europeanization and that’s when I became much more interested. Studying the EU became more about the policy impact and issues of democracy, that is, the impact on the polity. But, then it also depends on what policy area you look at. If you look at the welfare state, that doesn’t come into EU negotiations until much later. In comparative politics many people didn’t actually get to the impact of the EU until the Eurozone crisis. And then all of a sudden, it’s very big.

EuropeNow There are many perspectives on what we can define as a crisis. What would you identify as the most pressing crisis that Europe faces today, either at the EU or at the national level? And how has this changed your teaching?

Cathie Jo Martin The crisis that I really care about is the crisis of low-skilled youth. I feel like this is the social equivalent of climate change. We are really, really in trouble. There are so many social problems associated with low-skilled youth: they’re the one joining terrorist organizations, they’re the ones at the center of the opioid epidemic, and they’re the ones headed into long-term unemployment. That’s something that I’ve been talking to my students a lot about, in part because they have their own experience with what it feels like to be in vulnerable employment positions in a world where their parents’ generation had much more secure employment. There is a lot of generational injustice, I believe, in the world today and this has been accelerated, in some ways, by a tendency among everyone to feel like they have to go to college. The vocational track has been increasingly viewed with skepticism by young people. I feel like one of the things we need to do is look at education systems much more seriously and figure out how to revamp vocational training for the post-industrial economy and convince people that certain kinds of educations will, in the long-term, be in their best interest.

Vivien Schmidt I see that also as a very important crisis, but as I am working on the Eurozone crisis, for me the crisis is not just about the economics but also about legitimacy – the way in which the economics is linked to the politics, which is linked to legitimacy. In terms of my own courses, I have totally revamped my course on globalization to focus on the impact of crises: the financial crisis in the US, the Eurozone crisis in Europe and how these affect all areas of activity, including inequality, poverty, unemployment – youth unemployment in particular, which completely dovetails with what Cathie has been talking about. In another course we talk about the social crises in Europe, including citizenship, identity, immigration. What I’ve been doing in that course is having debates – debates over Brexit, inequality, what happened in Greece – in an attempt to get students to focus on the policy issues after having read the academic literature. What I see through my teaching is that, because of these crises, the EU actually gets a lot more interesting to students because they get a lot more engaged.

Cathie Jo Martin One of the things that I’ve done that is similar is to play games with my students. For example, today in class we had international teams of experts giving advice to Bulgaria, trying to solve its childcare problem. There was one group from Denmark, a social democratic country, one group from Germany, a Christian democratic country, and one group from Britain, a liberal social welfare regime. Each student gets assigned roles – business, labor, national government, local government – and they then try to come up with a set of suggestions for other countries. But it’s fun to get the students to do that because it forces them to enter the mindset of another country and also to look at the connection between national and international issues.

EuropeNow On the point of the connection between the national and the international – I started studying the EU in 2009, and while there was emphasis on the trade-offs of EU membership, it was ultimately still viewed as being of long-term benefit for member-states. Do you think that still holds today?

Vivien Schmidt So, two things here – one on the academics, one on the citizens. Academics have changed their views massively. Academics used to be completely positive about the EU. What we now have is increasing – I wouldn’t call it skepticism, but constructive criticism of the EU. Take the democratic deficit, for example. Before, there was a real debate about whether there was a deficit or not. Now everyone agrees that there is a democratic deficit and that this is a serious crisis that we are going through. And for citizens, with the rise of Euroskepticism and the rise of populism was the fear that after Brexit and Trump, France would be next. If Macron doesn’t work out, Marine le Pen’s election is a serious possibility five years hence.

Cathie Jo Martin One of the ways that my classes have changed is that we are just reading Erik Jones all of the time! [laughs] Erik makes the point that countries’ vulnerabilities don’t have a lot to do with their material conditions. They have more to do with their capacities to portray confidence and to get investors to believe that they shouldn’t leave. And so one of the things that I have been interested in in my classes is studying how these crises pose different kinds of challenges to different countries and how countries rely on some of their traditional mechanisms for political negotiation to overcome these crises. I think national structures continue to be important and the effects are not predetermined in any way. But I also think there’s a difficulty in teaching at a time when the solutions that we believed in in the past seem to be problematic in varied ways and it’s hard sometimes to know how we are going to emerge from this mess.

EuropeNow When Brexit happened, did that completely shock you? Or was the disintegration of the EU something that you had previously considered?

Cathie Jo Martin I was not shocked by either Brexit or Trump. From my perspective, these countries have been ignoring low skilled citizens in a way that’s deeply divisive. And so when Michelle Obama comes out and says we are already a great country – and I love Michelle Obama – I wanted to say to her, “We are all great, but there are a lot of us who don’t experience that greatness.” It’s a problem that you have these dual worlds. So for me, Brexit and Trump were both about the elites being forced to realize that their solutions are not solidaristic – even in the countries that are the most solidaristic. Every place is succumbing to these polarizing forces.

Vivien Schmidt I would say that I was not surprised, but I was in a total state of shock because of what it means for the way we live our lives, we being the West. I think this is a massive challenge for the West, and a major challenge for the EU in particular in terms of how it goes forward. I don’t see disintegration, but I see differentiated integration. I’ve been arguing for a long time that we need to think about the EU as consisting of different overlapping policy communities with different clusters of member states. If you conceive of it in this way, it’s still the EU but it could enable countries to have more freedom to decide which policy areas they want to deepen and which they don’t. There would be a place for the UK in that too. But, the problem is that there is still the mindset that we have to all move forward together; that we all have to be uniform and that everybody has to follow the rules. There is the belief that if Southern Europe had just followed the rules, they’d be fine. Well, can they follow the rules? This goes back to the role of the state and the kinds of coordination mechanisms they have in place. Southern Europe has a serious state failure problem. Well, are we going to keep hitting them over the head and punishing them for it? Or is there something else we can do?

EuropeNow What are your strategies for incorporating the most recent developments in European integration into your teaching even if academic research has not had a chance, yet, to catch up?

Cathie Jo Martin I take much more of a before-and-after approach to organizing my classes now. I teach a comparative public policy class and in the first half of the term we go over arguments about the abolition of nation-states and the welfare state in Europe, looking at things like labor power, business organizations and party systems. And then in the second half we look more at how countries are addressing the demographic changes, challenges of European integration and immigration. You have two really different stories about Europe. One story is the golden age story, and then you have the most recent story. One of the challenges is to try to get students to think about whether some of the foundational works on Europe that they read continue to have salience. I think that the jury is still out, and that maybe it makes more sense to look at how cultural resources and institutional resources are mobilized in specific political struggles rather than to think that there is going to be some final solution.

Vivien Schmidt In my courses, I generally have students read the academic literature on national and EU level, along with case studies and recent policy events. First, at the national level, we ask, is there change over time? Do we see an increase in state capacity? What happens to unions? How do citizens react? At the EU level, we look at the way in which institutional actors have changed over time and the way in which interactions between institutional actors have changed. In terms of the European Council, for example, its relations with the European Commission and Parliament are increasingly politically charged. So I’ll have the students read all of the different theories about how the EU works, but then we will actually look at the ongoing interactions among all these institutions in particular cases.

EuropeNow In the beginning of my studies there was the idea that to some extent, even if policies and the implementation of policies can be challenging, a European identity can be very powerful in propelling support for the EU. Is a European identity even possible today? And if so, do we still see this European identity as necessary for the future of the EU?

Vivien Schmidt If you look at what is European identity, it’s actually national and European: national first, European second. And that’s fine. Each country has its own particular vision of what the EU is, so each country has its own EU identity. I think that rather than talking about identity, we should talk about politics and political negotiation, and maybe the creation of an EU citizenship. But for that, you actually need to get ‘the people’ more involved. Part of the reason that today we have a major crisis of legitimacy is because more and more decisions are being made at the EU level and citizens at the national level find themselves unable to influence those decisions.

EuropeNow So, would it be right to say that you see this as a boiling over of the democratic deficit that we knew about all along?

Vivien Schmidt Totally. I now deal with the democratic deficit in a way that enables me to consider just about everything. I talk about performance legitimacy, or output legitimacy, which is all about political economy. I talk about political legitimacy, or input legitimacy by looking at the rise of populism at the national level and more politically charged interactions amongst actors at the EU level. And finally I talk about what I call throughput legitimacy, focused on the quality of governance processes in terms of accountability and transparency, etc. In Eurozone governance, the legitimacy crisis also comes from EU actors saying they are doing one thing while they are doing something else – reinterpreting the rules ‘by stealth’. The only way for them to get out of this is to change the rules. But we’ve also got institutions that make it impossible to change the rules because of the unanimity rule – everyone has to agree. Well, not everyone does. So you’ve got an institutional context that makes it impossible to change rules that don’t work and a politicization that is toxic at the national level and increasingly problematic at the EU level.

Cathie Jo Martin But for me, a lot of it is just about the world changing because we have so many similar problems in America and we don’t have the EU in America. So I am not sure that a lot of this is about the EU per se or whether the EU has just become a scapegoat for it. The irony is that globalization used to be seen as such a good thing. We all celebrated it and now suddenly globalization is problematic. Deindustrialization is also driving a lot of these problems. Countries do have some capacity to respond in different ways. A lot of countries do have choices. The sad thing is that they are frequently guided by neoliberal ideas that drive them into worse shape. And so what’s interesting is to think about how countries manage to create the political space to redeem themselves a little bit and to sustain more solidaristic policies.

Vivien Schmidt Yes, I agree that it’s about globalization; it’s about the resilience of neoliberal ideas and the way in which that has reduced the kind of social solidarity that you had in the past. And deindustrialization – if you’re a low-skilled youth, what do you do? I would argue that the EU has it even worse than the US. In the Dani Rodrik sense of hyperglobalization, what we’ve got is hyper-Europeanization. Whereas Rodrik talks about having a choice – either national democracy or sovereignty under hyperglobalization – under hyper-Europeanization, many countries have no choice at all.

EuropeNow This relates to theories of the EU as sui generis, as like nothing else. If the crises in Europe today are more broadly a result of globalization and deindustrialization, then the EU’s response suggests it’s much like any other region.

Vivien Schmidt I agree. It seems to me that although initially you could have argued that it’s sui generis, today it’s basically a form of regionalization under conditions of globalization that has simply gone much farther than any other region. When I’m talking about democratic legitimacy, these are terms we can think about for all countries and regions of the world, it’s just that because the EU has gone farther, it has engendered a major crisis for itself in terms of democratic legitimacy that take us beyond just the Eurozone crisis or the immigration crisis. But, in regards to your first question about the benefits and drawbacks of the EU, EU member-states couldn’t deal with these problems better on their own, in fact they would be much worse off if they weren’t part of the EU. There are all sorts of positive things about the EU; it has brought tremendous benefits to everyone, including in terms of the single market. But, in a way, it has gone too far. And all of those areas in which it has pushed beyond the limits, we are seeing pushback. The fundamental problem for the EU remains the politics, because the decisions are made up there, and people live and vote down here. And that’s why we are seeing the rise of populism.

Cathie Jo Martin I think it’s a regression to the mean in that the working classes have always felt cheated. What’s different is that there was this era of post-war prosperity where people felt better. Now we are back into feeling cheated again. So the deficit of democracy is something I think we have had for a very long time.



Vivien Schmidt is Jean Monnet Chair of European Integration, Professor of International Relations and Political Science, and Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Europe at Boston University. She has also been a professor at the University of Massachusetts/Boston and has held visiting professorships or fellowships at a number of European institutions, including LUISS in Rome, the Free University Berlin, Free University Brussels, Sciences Po Paris, Oxford University, the European University Institute, the Max Planck Institute in Cologne, the Copenhagen Business School, and Harvard University’s Center for European Studies, where she co-chairs the Future of the EU study group.  Professor Schmidt has published widely in European political economy, institutions and democracy, as well as on neo-institutional theory (discursive institutionalism).  Recent books include Democracy in Europe: The EU and National Polities (Oxford, 2006), named by the European Parliament as one of the ‘100 Books on Europe to Remember,’ Resilient Liberalism in Europe’s Political Economy (Cambridge, co-edited with M. Thatcher, 2013), and the forthcoming Europe’s Crisis of Legitimacy:  Governing by Rules and Ruling by Numbers in the Eurozone (Oxford 2018).  Professor Schmidt is a former chair of the European Union Studies Association. She received her B.A. from Bryn Mawr College, her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and attended the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Paris.

Cathie Jo Martin is professor of Political Science at Boston University and former chair of the Council for European Studies. Her most recent book, The Political Construction of Business Interests: Coordination, Growth and Equality (co-authored with Duane Swank, Cambridge University Press 2012) investigates the origins of coordinated capitalism and the circumstances under which employers are persuaded to endorse social policies promoting economic productivity and social solidarity. She is also author of Stuck in Neutral: Business and the Politics of Human Capital Investment Policy (Princeton University Press, 2000), Shifting the Burden: the Struggle over Growth and Corporate Taxation (University of Chicago Press, 1991),and articles appearing in journals such as the American Political Science Review, World Politics, the British Journal of Political Science, Comparative Political Studies, Governance, and Politics and Society among others. She has held fellowships at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the University of Copenhagen; in addition, she has received grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the German Marshall Fund, the Danish Social Science Research Council, and the National Science Foundation. She holds a position of visiting professor of the Copenhagen Business School, serves on the strategic advisory board of the Danish National Institute for Social Science Research, and sits on the editorial boards of Socio-Economic Review and Polity. Professor Martin received her Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1987.

Briitta van Staalduinen is a second-year PhD student in Government at Harvard University. She is affiliated with the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies and is also co-chair of the Center’s event series on Populism, Nationalism, and Radical Politics. Her research focuses on the political economy of immigrant incorporation in Europe. She is currently examining how social welfare and educational institutions condition the social mobility of working-class immigrants and their children.



Published on November 2, 2017
This part of our Campus Spotlight on Boston University.

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