State of the Union and Speaking Europe: An interview with Mathieu Segers

This is part of our Campus Spotlight on Maastricht University.

No stranger to crises, tough talks, and collaboration, the European Union is seeing a particularly eventful year. The anticipated economic ramifications of Brexit, troubling developments in Poland and Hungary, and declining relationships with China and the United States were the more predictable issues for 2020. However, with the entire world partially immobilized by a pandemic, the EU is expected to obligate itself for another problem-solving exercise, namely, securing internal stability and fiscal equity in the face of a global public health emergency. Met by citizens’ apprehensive expectations, obsequious to its own promises of stability and solidarity, and confronted by challenges coming from all directions, questions abound about how the EU will respond. These big questions are fueled by recurrent anxieties about solidarity, the EU’s place in matters across and beyond Europe, and the ways in which citizens, academics, and other actors negotiate the importance of the Union. In this interview, Mathieu Segers provides valuable insight into a host of Europe-related topics.

—Eline Schmeets and Akudo McGee for EuropeNow


EuropeNow Can you describe your earliest memory of interacting with the EU?

Mathieu Segers My earliest memory of interacting with the EU is as a fifteen-year-old boy in Maastricht during the negotiations of the Maastricht Treaty. I lived close to where the delegations of the different member states gathered to negotiate, as well as the hotel where the German delegation was staying. I was anxious and excited to be so close to an event of world political proportions. I tried to get even closer, but there were fences blocking the way. The only thing I saw was black plastic. That is, in a way, quite telling about how the EU works. Even for somebody who is really interested, someone who recognizes that it is important and is also intuitively sympathetic to the whole undertaking, it was absolutely impossible to get close. Nevertheless, I have always felt that I was in the heartland of the EU, in the southern part of the Netherlands, in Limburg, very close to Belgium and Germany. I have always felt part of it on an intuitive level and that has made me aware of the importance of European cooperation in practical life and in all kinds of settings.

EuropeNow When you came to Maastricht University in 2016, you were appointed as a Professor of Contemporary European History and European Integration at Maastricht University. What will make your professorship a success and what do you hope to accomplish?

Mathieu Segers I think a couple of things are key to what I want to do with this professorship. One is to foster academic freedom in all kinds of ways and also to stimulate the study of contemporary European history—European integration in particular—from the perspective of academic freedom. That means always stimulating myself and others to ask the why? A very Socratic question, but often overlooked as a way to trigger research questions because, especially in European Studies, a lot of research is in straight jackets of certain schools, theoretical approaches, opinions about what is good and bad for European integration—even if European integration in itself is something good and bad. I want to stay away from that normative judgement beforehand as much as possible, and always work to put myself in the position where I can ask myself, why? To me this also means that all research on contemporary European history should be open to interdisciplinary approaches. That is very key to what I am doing. In that, one thing is very dear to my heart – that the true empirical information that we have to study the phenomenon of European integration is historical material. It is in documents, it is in archives and that actually is somewhat at the heart of what I am doing in terms of research, to delve into that empirical reality that is, by definition, historical.

EuropeNow European integration continues to be a topic of interest for academics, with collaborative projects in the arena of European and EU Studies receiving considerable funding and support from the EU and various institutions. However, it seems that the translation of the insights gained from these projects is rather anemic in regards to engaging those outside of academia. What is the role of academics in engaging the public?

Mathieu Segers By far the most important thing is to remain independent. We as academics, especially in parts of the world like the Netherlands, are more dependent on outside funding and that comes with some strings and loyalties that threaten that independent position that you should always safeguard for yourself. If you can manage to remain, to a certain extent, independent, then it becomes easier to engage with the public because you are not depending on a program, you are not defending an interest group or a certain view on reality. You are defending research into why things are going the way they are going. That is a very strong starting point to engage with any public. If you can stay close to your own research, to what you know about a specific theme, then most of the time you very easily are a trustworthy and credible conversation partner for all kinds of societal parties—be it business, ordinary citizens, certain interest groups, or different generations with different experiences. To put yourself in that position of independence, close to your own research, is not that easy in today’s academic world. Before you know, you are put before the cart of certain opinions, political parties, or activist programs.

EuropeNow How can academics work to arouse widespread collaboration with Europeans outside of academia?

Mathieu Segers A very important thing is that you force yourself to do the exercise of translation, not so much in the terms of language, although that is also important. You should, on a regular basis, challenge yourself as an academic to translate what you are doing in terms and language that is understandable for people who are not active in academia, especially when you are doing research in a domain like ours, European Studies, Contemporary European History, and social sciences. All these issues and themes are so close to what is happening in our current world. I think it is sort of an unwritten obligation that you do this exercise, first in your education, but then also beyond the walls of the university and the privileged who are there as students and/or staff. That is something that I take as an integral part of the responsibility of being a professional academic and it is also something that is very stimulating and inspiring because it is, in a way, also a test of external consistency. If you manage to translate certain academic insights that you acquired through academic work for a broader audience and you then experience that the broader audience picks up on this and understands or is interested in what you are saying, that is a very inspiring experience. That also inspires the academic work that you are doing, so in the ideal situation, those two worlds can mutually reinforce each other if the act of translation is successful. The only ones who can do the act of translation are academics since they can connect these worlds because of the knowledge that they have built up during their career.

EuropeNow What role do universities and research organizations play in engaging the public in a meaningful way?

Mathieu Segers That is the tension. External funding often comes with the precondition of engaging the wider public and that is exactly where a lot of the tension is. In my view, engaging the wider public when you are working in a field like mine is an integral part of your responsibility as a professional academic. If an external party is taking over that responsibility through funding and then targeting the responsibility to certain groups in society connected to certain interests or budgets that they have, then you are already losing control of your own position as an academic. That is a real threat, not so much because it is so directly influenced by external parties—for instance like in pharmaceutical research–but because in our field of research, it is a lot about interpretation and showing proof of the basis for your interpretation. Perception and misperception in social sciences and humanities research is very common. If there is misperception, plus external funding with an active agenda that is focused on certain groups because of certain budgets or interests, then it becomes very difficult to keep up the claim that you are doing independent, scholarly research. It might be the case that you are still doing just that, but it will not be perceived as such and it will be almost impossible to conquer that false image. That is a real threat to European Studies. Moreover, very good, international, multidisciplinary groups who work on important themes on a high level in terms of scholarly research are put in the light of this false image because of this combination of misperceptions and the “follow the money” intuition by the broader public. Then, you are putting the horse behind the cart because all of your ambitions to engage with the broader public will be portrayed and work out in very cynical ways, counter-productive to what you’re aiming to achieve.

EuropeNow The sun just set on what ended up being a close race between incumbent Andrzej Duda and Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski in Poland’s presidential election. Now that it’s clear the Law and Justice Party (PiS) will continue as the ruling party, how do you envision this will affect Poland-EU relations?

Mathieu Segers These relations will remain tense, either way. That is because, like in many countries, not only in Central and Eastern Europe, but also in Western Europe, the population is really divided on issues of European integration and the approach the country should take towards the European Union. I think this in itself is a very important signal, an alarm bell actually, that has gone off already for more than a decade and has not really been taken seriously in the European institutions up until now. The outcome of the Polish election is another alarm bell in this series of alarm bells that there is work to be done for the European integration process as a whole to remain a credible undertaking for the people that are a part of it. That is very crucial and still not tackled in a truly serious way by most of the responsible people in the European institutions and the “pro-European” governments.

EuropeNow What mechanisms, if any, do you see being valuable in the ongoing battle to constrain the actions of member states like Poland and Hungary?

Mathieu Segers I think that the avenue of punishment, in almost every way, is not the most productive avenue, although you should not close it per definition. This is one area where we see that the Europe of European integration does not know its own history that well. The strength of the integration process, when it comes to these kinds of tensions with member states or outside countries has rested on two elements: (1) Soft power, which is strongly rooted in norms and values–especially human rights–and only works through time and by proving in your own society that this is the better alternative. That is very important. It never works immediately, but has to prove itself over time, and time and time again. (2) The other dimension that is more cynical–or practical–is checkbook diplomacy. The idea that instead of punishment, the Union provides fiscal support to encourage certain behavior. That is one of the lessons of European integration when it comes, for instance, to the relationship between Western Germany and Eastern Germany in the 1970s and 1980s as the basis for the German reunification in the 1990s. Those two instruments are key in any European common foreign policy. It’s not about punishment and it’s also not about hard power, those are two instruments that either the EU will not have or that will not work. In the end, you are looking for friendly relationships to ensure stability for trade and the internal market and not for conflict, if you look at the general European interest.

EuropeNow Germany is inheriting the EU Council presidency and will have to juggle concurrent priorities, from the management of the COVID-19 crisis and its economic ramifications to articulating the circumstances of the EU and UK’s post-Brexit relationship. Given Angela Merkel’s repertoire of successfully navigated crises and the historically strong Franco-German response to a myriad of EU issues, how do you see this presidency playing out?

Mathieu Segers That Germany is taking the lead now is a lucky coincidence of history because Germany is the only country that can put the money and the power where the words are, in comparison to other European Union member states. It is another lucky coincidence of history that Angela Merkel is leading Germany and is willing and able to take on this role because of the presidency. It is only because of the presidency that she can take on such a role, since Germany can never lead alone because no other country aspires to live in a proto-German hegemony in the European Union, nor are the Germans looking for leadership in that way. Actually, they are very afraid of being in such a powerful role because of their own history. Like a real politician, a stateswoman, Angela Merkel seeks to seize the opportunity to fill this momentum with concrete action. That is good news. There is also a warning here. Because Germany is taking on this huge responsibility, others might have an impulse to sit back a bit and let the Germans do the work. That would be, in the mid-to-long run, very bad news for European integration because integration cannot possibly be carried out by one member state. It is important that we do not leave the Germans alone in this. It looks like the French will support Merkel because she is also tying in a lot of her actions into the French agenda of priorities. But it is still very important that the coalition around Germany in this decisive moment is as broad as possible. It looks like not every friend of Germany is aware of the responsibility to support Germany that lands with them. That is actually threatening the credibility of the whole undertaking.

EuropeNow In which ways has the COVID-19 crisis—which contests reducing the EU to an economic actor—challenged the way we understand what the EU is and what it does?

Mathieu Segers What COVID-19 “does” to the EU is that it clearly shows where the weak spots are, but it also shows, in an international perspective, how strong and adequate the European response has been, compared to, for example the US’ or China’s. Compared to the US, it is pretty clear that the EU did a better job. Compared to China, in practical terms, perhaps the EU did not do a better job, but in terms of the collateral of the Chinese approach when it comes to human rights and democracy, obviously the EU is the preferred option—for most Europeans at least. In that sense, COVID-19 is not all that bad for the image of the EU. Inside the European Union, however, what we see is that there is still a lot that is unclear when it comes to how cooperation should work in unexpected situations—and that makes it very political and also unpredictable. Every member state needs legitimacy in its own democracy arena and that makes it also very vulnerable to hiccups, problems, and “too little too late” kind of situations. But up until now, I would say that there are two elements we tend to see as negative when it comes to European integration, that we might want to reconsider as positive. Firstly, exactly because the different member states take a different approach, they can learn from one another. They can see early in the game what works well and what does not, where there can be a division of labor, where they can help each other out while in different phases of the pandemic. The institutional competition ensured in the way the EU is set up is a plus. It allows for a finetuning for further EU answers to the crisis in the upcoming months and years. We have to revalue institutional competition as a plus. This also proves that the EU is not a super state, not a one-size-fits-all kind of collaborative undertaking—quite to the contrary. Secondly, the EU, to a certain extent, remains inefficient at the European level. This inefficiency creates time for deliberation, for different approaches, and for the political legitimization of certain decisions. In that sense, it is very efficient in the end in making sure that a certain basis of advocacy for policy changes and actions is ensured in a trans-European way. Inefficiency has a certain beauty, in that it allows for variations and tailor-made solutions and maybe more efficient policies in the long run, rather than ad-hoc, centralized direct actions by the government.

EuropeNow The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated many existing cleavages, not only amongst member states but also between the EU and its external allies, like the United States. A recent report[1] suggested European’s waning trust for the US due to its handling of the virus and, interestingly, increasing support for EU-wide collaboration. What implications does this have for the already tense relationship that many EU states have developed with the US in recent years?

Mathieu Segers To a certain extent, it links to the former answer, but it is also the further substantiation of a trend that has been going on since the end of the Cold War, where the partnership between the US and the Europe of European integration is not a given anymore because of a bipolar reality in global politics. I think that Angela Merkel was very right to stress, in 2017, that it is time for Europe to take control of its own destiny and not wait and see what the US is doing. I think this also corresponds with a trans-European feeling where, at a very general level, most Europeans, if they have to choose between the US, China, and the European Union, will go very passionately for the EU. That is a very important explanatory factor for the rising support for European approaches in this pandemic—despite the haggling over details between member states. The basic consensus that there is a need for a European alternative in today’s world has gained more credibility during this pandemic than ever before.

EuropeNow During the COVID-19 crisis, the Netherlands has been criticized for a lack of solidarity, especially by Italian politicians. Can you speak on this situation, particularly the “North-South divide” and on-going issues with solidarity and responsibility among member states?

Mathieu Segers This discussion is, to a certain extent, also a fake discussion, because it is about national prototypes or ideal types and clichés, in which the discussions are framed on both sides to explain, in the domestic politics, that you are representing the interests of the people. This is understandable and also part of democratic politics, but there is a limit to how far you can go with it. At a certain moment, there is a turning point where this cliché narrative fires back and prevents you from reaching solutions on the European level. So, this is a delicate line, which I think was crossed in the first stages of the European answer to the pandemic—especially in March and April—because of this dynamic between the Netherlands and Italy, which was very stylized in an oversimplified way. People lost sight of what was really on the agenda. If you cross that line, you hit a fundamental problem of European integration. If the difference between what you are saying in public and what you are doing in Brussels becomes too great, you have a credibility problem, either in Europe or at home. I think that the ways in which the Dutch government, for instance, positioned itself for the   summit that was to come will have serious collateral in domestic politics.

EuropeNow The European Green Deal is considered the flagship of the new European Commission—in their own words “Europe’s man on the moon moment.” Do you view this as a top-down or grassroots movement?

Mathieu Segers Two dimensions are important here. We have to wait and see how it works out, whether it is a top-down or bottom-up movement. I think the ambition of the Commission is the right one—to make it a horizontal ambition so to say, that has to reappear in everything that the European Union is taking on in the coming years. In that sense, it also could be a classic communitarian undertaking, as we have seen in earlier episodes of European integration, because it is about a theme that is not national but very trans-European in itself. The other important facet here is—and this is something the European Commission also stresses when they explain the why and how of the Green Deal—that the climate demonstrations by the youngest generations of Europeans were crucial in giving the decisive push for an agenda. In fact, this has lingered on the agenda already for decades, since the Club of Rome in the 1970s. It never really came off the ground because there was not enough urgency felt and not enough proof of societal engagement to shoulder the costs. Because of these demonstrations, which were really impressive, momentum finally built to take steps and formulate ambitions on the European level that might indeed lead to groundbreaking new policies.

EuropeNow The EU has voiced its “grave concerns” over China’s attempts to limit freedom of speech in Hong Kong, however, as we’ve seen before, the EU sometimes has limited power to act outside of the European neighborhood. Should the EU seek to act more firmly, beyond just offering words of condemnation? If so, what should the EU do and how should it react to threats to norms like freedom of speech and human rights that occur well beyond the European neighborhood?

Mathieu Segers The EU does not have the hard power nor unity to act. Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, said in a lecture that I attended ten years ago, “I am the foreign policy chief for the European Union. I am the person with the telephone Henry Kissinger always asks for. He can now call Europe but then he gets my voicemail, it goes like this: ‘Hello, this is the voicemail of Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief. For the French position push one. For the German position push two, and so on.’” I think this is still the case, also for a crisis like in Hong Kong. What the EU can do is use soft-power to the maximum by being as transparent as possible, supporting independent media coverage, and “naming and shaming,” from a formal position, what is going on in Hong Kong. Of course, it can also exercise checkbook diplomacy, but this is part of a larger problem, namely the relationship with China, which is very tense but also very intense when it comes to economic dependencies, for instance. We are nearing the point where the EU has to take a stronger stance in the economic domain since there are certain occurrences that seem unacceptable from a European perspective. That cannot go without certain consequences in the economic domain. On the other hand, as in the internal cases that border the violation of values and norms, the EU should remain a credible mediator and conversation partner in the future. This is not only because it is a wise, tactical, and strategic decision for the international relations of today, but also because this is an indirect way to support the people in Hong Kong. It is also an indirect way to support the Polish people who are afraid of the government at the moment. The EU can make clear statements about actions that are not in line with the values and norms of the EU. The EU should not be too hesitant to speak and take action as much as possible in these instances. Though in the first instance, Hong Kong is an issue especially for the UK and the US, the EU should not shy away from voicing its opinion from a European perspective.

EuropeNow Are there plans for Maastricht Working on Europe to further engage the public in its many initiatives?

Mathieu Segers When it comes to Maastricht Working on Europe, from my point of view, the most important undertakings are to ensure interdisciplinary approaches, ensure academic freedom to the maximum extent, and underline the responsibility to translate academic insights for a broader public from a position of independence and interdisciplinarity.



Mathieu Segers is the Professor of Contemporary European History and European Integration and EuropaChair at Maastricht University, as well as chair of the Academic Board for the Maastricht, Working on Europe (MWoE) program. A trusted thought partner for publications such as The Financial Times, De Groene Amsterdammer, and Het Financieele Dagblad, his research foci include the history and pre-history of European integration and trans-Atlantic relations and current European and EU affairs. He is a former Fulbright-Schuman fellow at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University and was a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.


Akudo McGee is a PhD researcher at Maastricht University in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and at Maastricht Working on Europe. Her research is about the implications of the 2004 Eastern Enlargement for the European Union’s internal integration capacity and examines the unique trajectory of Poland in the EU as a case study. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pittsburgh in German Language and Cultural Studies and a Master of Arts from the University of Amsterdam in European Studies.


Eline Schmeets is a PhD researcher at Maastricht Working on Europa and a teaching fellow at Maastricht University. Her research focuses on the European integration process, there where it ‘hits the ground’ – where theories, subsidies, policies and good intentions meet with the lived reality of ‘the everyday’, and aims to demonstrate how integration efforts at the European level do not necessarily override integration efforts at the local level and might even be counterproductive. She holds a Master by Research in Cultural Studies from The University of Edinburgh and a Bachelor of Arts and Culture from Maastricht University.


Published on November 10, 2020.


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