Aidan Regan is assistant professor at the UCD School of Politics and International Relations. He has just been awarded a grant by the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme to open a Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence in UCD. The project will be titled ‘The New Political Economy of Europe: Re-engaging the Street’. The College Tribune met with Dr. Regan to discuss this exciting opportunity for UCD.

The purpose of a Jean Monnet centre is to act as a focal point for the study of all disciplines related to European studies. It aims to build strategic capacity in a particular area of expertise, which is in this case; the comparative political economy of Europe. Dr. Regan wants this centre to take the wealth of expertise that exists within UCD and ‘try to disseminate it more broadly and to engage non-traditional actors in those difficult questions that pertain to European integration.’ The centre wants to address difficult questions about the future of the European Union and Dr. Regan views this specific subject through three sub-categories of enquiry.

The first, he describes as European economic governance. The Euro crisis has highlighted serious disparities between the underlying economic structures of certain member states. This raises a number of potential research questions; ‘Can diverse political economies coexist within the constraints of European monetary integration?’ Even a simple consideration of the stark contrast between the economies of Greece and Finland would make anyone ask how two dramatically divergent economies can operate within the same system. In addition, is it legitimate for the EU to attempt to align their member states’ economies further?

The second area will be democratic legitimacy; ‘Is it realistic to think that you can have European monetary integration without having increased fiscal tax harmonisation?’ Of course, it will be even more important to ask this question in Ireland, as opposed to any other EU member state. ‘Large multinationals are effectively avoiding contributing their fair share of taxation to the development of the public sphere and there is one particular country in the Eurozone that is facilitating this on an international global scale; Ireland.’ Ireland’s corporate tax and our leniency toward footloose tech companies is a constant point of contention within our political sphere, and therefore, raises some significant questions about the sustainability of Ireland’s current policies and our duty to our fellow EU member states that this centre hopes to address.

The third line of enquiry will be protest and politics. Populism has become an easy way to brand a progressive political movement as illegitimate, ‘it’s a convenient way to dismiss political grievances and economic grievances of those outside of the political centre.’ Dr. Regan wants the work of this centre to reframe how we perceive political parties beyond the status quo, ‘Challenger parties are emerging everywhere and they are clearly mobilising certain parts of the electorate on certain economic and cultural issues.’ The EU needs to address the possibility that European liberalisation may be directly responsible for the re-emergence of the far-right in Europe. From political violence to the democratic shifting of the political status quo, it’s evident that the EU should work to alter it’s attitudes towards its own citizens and Dr. Regan wants this centre to make that fundamental first step; ‘It’s about asking those difficult questions instead of ignoring them.’

On a practical level, these three lines of enquiry into the political economy of the EU will be addressed through teaching, research and the centre’s use of social media and technology. Dr. Regan hopes to develop a new module for undergraduates in the school of politics, as well as a guest lecture series. The centre’s funding will allow a PhD researcher to advance a doctoral thesis on a topic within this area of study. There are plans to host a winter school at UCD for external researchers from across the EU, that would hopefully result in the publication of an edited volume or scientific journal that would address some of the topics raised by the centre.

The centre will develop its own website, social media presence and perhaps most interestingly, a podcast series. The Erasmus+ programme encourages Jean Monnet centres to embrace modern technology to advance their work and Dr. Regan believes podcasts are an excellent way to assimilate the centre’s research with the modern world, ‘Podcasts are the future in terms of how people digest information and news.’ The podcast is forthcoming, but Dr. Regan did share one of his episode ideas with us; to take Adam Smith’s comparisons of the tailor, butcher, brewer and baker from the Wealth of Nations and interview people in those professions in modern Dublin about the their opinions on the EU and it’s political economy. It’s an interesting premise that speaks to another aim that Dr. Regan has for this centre; to do away with technocracy and the exclusivity of academia, and open the discussion of politics up to everyone. He hopes that the podcast will become a way of ‘using new technologies to address these questions, therefore developing a new online public sphere to reach a much wider audience, not just beyond UCD but those that do not attend university, have no experience with academia, but are thinking about these questions just as much as everybody else.’

The importance of the development of this centre within both UCD and Ireland cannot be overstated. ‘With the uncertainty of Brexit and Ireland’s evolving relationship with the EU, this centre will play an important role in Ireland in addressing important questions about the future of the European political economy and how Ireland will operate within it.’

The Irish are distinctly pro-Europe. In 2017, Eurobarometer found that the Irish people surveyed were the most optimistic of all the EU member states about the future of the EU. Despite the recent inception of the Irexit party, Dr. Regan believes that there is no significant desire to leave the EU among Irish voters, ‘I hope the Irish media can be more responsible than to give a voice to this small radical minority group when they are not at all representative of public opinion.’ Although Ireland may say that it is content as part of the European Union, we are not ready to celebrate it blindly.

The centre’s namesake Jean Monnet is considered one of the founding fathers of the European Union, but Dr. Regan insists that this centre will not a be a europhile propaganda machine, but rather an academic sounding board for the improvement of the European Union, ‘The EU must take a lot of responsibility for some of the decisions made over the last ten years, which have given rise to serious economic and political turbulence.’ Ultimately, through the engagement of students, academics, non-traditional actors, all those who believe that the EU has been on aggregate a positive organisation can use this Jean Monnet centre to further their ideas for the reformation of the European Union.

Muireann O’Shea – CoEditor