What the Liberal Left Has Unlearned: Teaching Common Values and History in the EU

In a material sense, the countries within the EU are slowly recovering from the debt and refugee ‘crises’. However, politically speaking the wounds are far from closing as Brexit and the surge of right-wing populism show. On a superficial level it is astonishing that the liberal project of the EU has taken for granted that economic and political liberalism will stabilize each other. Taken for granted to such a degree that the core political values where only charged once from newly entering member states: only at the door to entry, e.g. in the form of the Kopenhagen criteria. But once the new members became full members of the club there is very little the EU actually can do about backsliding. The European responses to Berlusconi’s Italy, Austria’s coalition government including a right-wing populist party of the early 2000s, or to the recent ‘carpet bombing’ (Lajos Bokros) on the Hungarian and (to some degree) on the Polish constitution have been lukewarm at best.

If these episodes show one thing, however, is that one cannot take for granted that the EU is a community of shared values. It may or may not be. The EU is first and foremost a legal and economic arrangement with some influence in specific policy areas. And among these policy issues those get most political stage light that deal with economic and legal issues: how to handle debt, how to handle third-country migrants to name just two hot topics.

In all these increasingly polarized discussions EU member states and the common institutions have unlearned an important lesson of early post-war reconstruction: re-education. The idea of European integration was first and foremost one about establishing a community of values: the mutual stabilization of democracies, rule of law, and good government. And this is hard to achieve only by secondary action on specific policy areas. It is even hard to achieve only by constitutional guarantees alone. What the European project, in the beginning, was all about was shaping Europeans. A good example for this was the French-German twinning that happened in the early post-war period. This consisted much more of symbolic politics and the actual exchange between pupils, twinning programs between towns and cities and a common understanding of shared history.

This dimension was never fully embraced by the EU. Education, for instance, seems to be fully submitted to the principle of subsidiarity. True, there is some harmonization of degrees and facilitation of mobility. And yet, nation states jealously watch over the substantive contains in this domain, and, as Ernest Gellner would have expected, within nation states the substance matter of education falls very often into the hands of conservative politicians. This might not be necessarily bad, but from this foundation right-wing extremism takes its legitimacy to build up very dangerous interpretations of European history.

Just take the example of the current Hungarian government which is aggressively redesigning the content of education towards more conservative worldviews. This is only possible because such underlying national narrative where never replaced, not even counterbalanced by transnational, European narratives. Look at one exhibit, I came across some eight years ago in a normal book shop. It shows the title page of a historical atlas for school children. On the title page you see the image of greater Hungary, the part of the Austro-Hungarian empire after the great compromise 1867 (and implicitly, as the mythical king figure exhibits a much longer historical tradition). This picture is ingrained in the minds of Hungarian kids learning history.

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No wonder that these new Hungarians feel betrayed: they live in a seemingly smaller, less aspiring, shrinking country compared to this fictitious entity. The past is a country of glory and greatness and the present one one of shame. For liberals it is obvious that this greater Hungary is a case of historical cherry-picking, a manufactured snapshot in the everchanging, constantly meandering flows of history, with moving boundaries, moving identities, and moving social structures. It is so obvious to them that they do not seem to care to replace it by a more pluralistic less nationalistic version of history.

This is the fertile ground of current right-wing rhetoric. The Hungarian politics of collective memory constantly repeat the idea of being betrayed and victimized. And under constant threat from neighbors and superior powers. And Hungary is clearly not the only case of such partial historical narratives. Was it the Polish-Lithuanian or Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth of the 16th and 17th century that showed the largest extensions of what current day Poles or Lithuanians believe to be their past? Does Kosovo historically belong to Serbia or not?

Liberals usually don’t bother about these issues, they live in a world beyond borders. They do not see that people care about belonging to a community (e.g. here). In fact, they care so little, that they do not think these issues should be regulated or Europeanized at all. But Europe is about much more than just money or external borders. It is about the way how we tell ourselves stories about our common past. It is here the EU can also act and to develop a European version of history. The EU needs to rediscover the idea that a union is also about informing and instilling common values and common identities. Why not massify twin programs between neighboring countries or invest in common historical education for a start? The issues are too important to left to the containers that are contemporary nation states alone.


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Book Review on ‘The Second Machine Age’ in bullet points #futureofwork

I wrote a review on ‘The Second Machine Age’ by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. For the published version see here.

Here are some bullet points:

  • this is a pop-science version of the authors work on the economic consequences of digitalization and roboterization of production processes;
  • the authors argue that these processes lead to new productivity gains, especially if one also counts unpaid production such as the social value generated by companies like Google;
  • but that they also lead to new levels of inequality and winner-take-it-all markets.
  • This diagnosis part of the book, while somewhat bleak, makes for an interesting read.
  • The recommendations part lags a bit behind as the authors mainly focus on the usual 101 textbook recipes for economists while at the same time they argue for radical transformations in the economy.


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Post in Political Economy and History of Capitalism

For details see here

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New blog post on interactive tests, test anxiety and learning in #highereducation

Recently, I have written a blogpost in German on use of interactive multiple choice test in evaluating students. Here are the bullet points in English:

  • interactive tests are tests that give students the possibility to solve questions, quizzes and exams interactively, usually based on computers.
  • they are a great way to make tests not only evaluation but also learning exercises. Students can get immediate feedback, can have multiple tries. Tests can even be adaptive in the sense that the subsequent questions react to the difficulties or degree of ease with which students answer the previous ones.
  • yet, new solutions also raise new problems. The most important of these is test anxiety. While MC tests already are a stressful experience for students, on-screen solutions can make matters worse.
  • I am currently doing a couple of trial runs, comparing different test designs to see which ones work better or worse. The paper & pencil version indeed seems to invoke a little less stress, but students nonetheless preferred the electronic version.
  • Hence, the task is to make simple design choices (visual, pedagogical) that allow to make best use of interactive tests while holding test anxiety to an acceptable level.

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Climate Change and Underwhelming Policy Responses

In our project on excessive policy volatility we also look at cases in which either nothing substantial gets really done in policy making or in which even ‘progressive’ change often has feet of clay. In a recent article, Michael Howlett and I illustrate this logic of disproportionality in policy making with the case of climate change policies. We see that risk averse governments still have two main ways of justifying inaction (or even negative, anti-reactions): either denying the problem or fatalistically accepting it. In this we follow the recent literature on disproportionate policy responses and also the older literature on blame avoidance and risk averse governments.


Here is the link: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1523908X.2017.1324772

Send me an email, if you would like the ungated version.

Here is also our abstract:

We apply insights from the recent literature on disproportionate policy reactions to the case of climate change policy-making. We show when and why climate change exhibits features of a sustained under-reaction: Governments may react to concerns about climate change not through substantive change but by efforts to manage blame strategically. As long as they can avoid blame for potential negative policy outcomes policy-makers can act to deny problems, or implement only small-scale or symbolic reforms. While this pattern may change as climate change problems worsen and public recognition of the issue and what can be done about it alters, opportunities to manage blame will still exist. Governments will only revert to more substantive interventions when attempts to fatalistically frame the problem as unavoidable fail in the face of increased public visibility.

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PostDoc Position in IPE, Switzerland, Steffie Walter


The Institute for Political Science at the University of Zurich invites applications for a position as


Post-doctoral researcher („Oberassistenz“) 


at the Chair of International Relations and Political Economy (Prof. Dr. Stefanie Walter).



The Department of Political Science offers excellent research support in a vibrant research community and is committed to advancing young scholars’ careers.


The post-doctoral researcher will pursue his or her own research agenda in the fields of international relations and international political economy and produce scholarship with the potential for publication in top outlets. He or she will contribute to teaching in the fields of international relations and political economy (3 hours per week, which translates into a 1-2 teaching load), advising of students and doctoral candidates, and some administrative tasks. Collaboration in research projects running at the Chair and the Department is encouraged.


The successful candidate

  • demonstrates a strong interest in research and the potential to develop an internationally recognized research track record in international political economy, proven through peer-reviewed publications, third-party funding, and/or related research activities.
  • holds a PhD in political science or international relations (or is close to completion).
  • possesses strong methodological skills.
  • demonstrates the willingness and ability to engage in high-quality teaching, proven through teaching evaluations, didactical training etc.
  • is motivated to pursue an academic career.
  • is able to work both independently and in a team.
  • has a strong command of English and good working knowledge of German.

The starting date for the position is 1 September 2017. A minimum of two-year commitment is requested; renewal up to six years is possible and contingent on research productivity, teaching quality, and continued substantive fit. The salary is 80.000 CHF/year. Limited funding for conference travel etc. is available.


Further enquiries can be directed to Prof. Stefanie Walter (walter@ipz.uzh.ch). Information about the research and teaching activities at the Chair of International Relations and Political Economy is available at http://www.ipz.uzh.ch/lehrstuehle/ibipe.html.



Please send your application electronically as one pdf-file comprising your motivation letter, CV, publication list, brief proposal for a postdoctoral project (1 page), transcripts, teaching evaluations (if available), and the names of two references to the secretariat of the Institute for Political Science (sekretariat@ipz.uzh.ch). Deadline for applications is 31 May 2017.



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Forget about the Money: Why Hungary is much more worrisome than Brexit or Greece

The recent struggle about the fate of CEU in Hungary is just the latest installment of a move towards what the Hungarian government calls ‘illiberal democracy’.  In real terms, this is a misnomer as Hungary has become a democracy only in the sense of an (not really fairly) elected government, whereas most of the other institutions have been gradually dismantled: checks and balances, independent judiciary, independent press, academic freedom are all severely damaged.

I am not alone in this assessment: Just look at the recent relative performance of Hungary in the Bertelsmann Democracy Status Index. It not only tanks, it also tanks in a region with a declining trend (recent events in Poland might also drag the region average down, though).



The only positive aspect of the Hungarian lex specialis against CEU is however, that it gives salience to an issue which is much more worrisome than BREXIT or the debt crisis in Southern Europe: it is the question, whether the EU can continue to exist if some of its members cease to be democracies.

Historically, the European Communities were founded as a zone of economic integration and cooperation to stabilize the partly nascent democracies in Western Europe. One might argue that ironically, the economic integration has contributed to a destabilization of these democracies. And yet, in many respects the current resentment against the EU is just a typical example of scapegoating: the debt crisis, the integration in a global economy could perhaps have been mitigated without the deep European economic integration, but they would have happened nonetheless.

Forget about the money for a second. The fog of economic turbulences has clouded our eyes when it comes to the original idea: creating a mutually stabilizing club of democracies. The legitimacy of the European Union itself is at stake, if it transforms into a mixed bag of democracies, semi-democracies, and outright autocracies in the near future. Like the United Nations such an EU would suffer tremendously from the most basic disagreements on fundamental human norms. Just think of the fact that Saudia Arabia gets to chair the UN Human Rights Council panel. However, unlike the United Nations, the EU would still consist of a much deeper level of political integration, of shared areas of competences and common institutions.

Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to think that the current crisis in Hungary and in several other European countries poses the most existential threat to the EU since its existence. Forget about the money, this is about basic freedom, democracy and rule of law. This is about the reason why the EU was called into existence.



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