The best of Europe
I have to say that is not without some relief that I have left the country and come to Brussels for a grading meeting for the European Research Council. I know that I have banged on before about how great the ERC is, but this year -- after having just received a good deal of hate mail about the "uselessness" (that's putting it the most politely) of closer links with Europe -- it seemed all the more loaded. The fact is that the ERC is putting vast amounts of money into European research (almost €2 billion in the scheme I am working with at the monent). When you take into account all the other well funded schemes they operate, this makes Europe one of the big players in world research funding, certainly rivalling any governmental strands in the USA. More parochially, the UK gets at least its fair share of that cash -- all sorts of our research, from particle physics to Classics, are heavily dependent on euro-money.
But I am more interested here in the personal side -- because these meetings in Brussels always remind me how much academic life has change for me and most of my university colleagues since we became a bigger part of Europe.
It's not that we were just little Englanders before; far from it. When I was a graduate student I spent several months in Rome (at the excellent British School at Rome), partly meeting Italian scholars and going to Italian lectures (frankly a struggle with the level of Italian I then had, and the speed at which they gabbled). But I would never have predicted then that less than forty years later I would have been sitting round a table in Brussels with a group of other historians from all over Europe, discussing funding applications from an equally multinational crowd of young scholars. The official language of all this, by the way, is English -- but scratch the surface and there's a polyglot Babel going on.
There's nothing like making funding decisions with a group of colleagues to help you get to know them really well. And over the years I've been doing this I've made not only good friends, but some lasting and productive academic connections too. European research really is, in part, now EUROPEAN . . . and not seen in national boxes. And it has been enormously enriched by all this, tedious as some of the eurocrat rules, lets admit it, can occasionally be.
None of this usually comes out in discussions of what we get out of our links with Europe. Now, to be fair, I should concede that the ERC is not technically an EU organisation. It gives money to (and draws on the expertise and contributions of) the "greater European zone", or the "European Research Area"; it isnt just by and for the EU...and it includes not just our old friends Norway and Switzerland, but a wider range of nations (Turkey and Israel, for example). That said, it does feel like an important part of the European project -- and in a wider sense (like the European Court) it is.
Anyway as I toddled back to the hotel last night after a dinner with the panel (not a freebie on the ERC by the way .. but a jolly occasion with plenty of good humoured banter about whether our Greek member's credit card was likely to be accepted by a Belgian restaurant)...I fell to thinking rather ponderously that there was a sort of "two stream" version of European engagement within the UK. There were those who (for whatever reason) came regularly face to face with what we get out of closer European links..and those who may never notice (or be encouraged to notice) those benefits in their daily lives. Maybe its hardly surprising that they dont feel that Europe has much to offer, and noone much bothers to explain.
And that starts at school doesnt it? If so few of our kids are studying foreign languages to any decent level at school, we're not actually equipping them to make the most of what Europe has to offer, or see the point of it.