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Dr. Claudia Matthes, Director of Studies, International MA Programs, Humboldt University, Berlin, is our first Jean Monnet Center of Excellence EU Visiting Scholar in residence. View more details on Dr. Matthes’ role at UNC and her contact information on the Jean Monnet Center of Excellence Visiting Scholar page.

Why Europe/Where is Europe heading to?

During my stay at UNC as a visiting scholar in March and April this year my aim was to contribute some insights on the most pressing political debates that are going on in Europe these days: How European countries and the EU as an institution respond to the influx of refugees in 2015, how they address real or imagined security threats through their border management policies and how populist parties in Europe try to exploit the insecurity of many citizens in order to profit politically from people’s concerns and fears.

So, how strong and how influential are these populists and nationalists in the EU? Compared to previous years, we do see that they have become more powerful: In the European Parliament Euro-skeptic parties cover about 30% of seats since the 2014 elections and in eight out of 28 EU countries they are part of the government, especially in East Central Europe, but also in Greece, Finland and Great Britain, whereas they hope to increase their shares in next year’s elections in France and Germany. Here, the “Alternative for Germany”, a new political party that started as a critic of the common European currency and then turned into a voice of nationalist, anti-Islamic sentiments, is since 2016 already represented in eight federal state parliaments. All in all, these parties still constitute a minority in Europe, but in some countries it has become more difficult to defend cosmopolitan values and, even more important, the old divide between East and West that has seemingly been overcome now has become more pronounced in the political discourse again. While some West European politicians demand that Eastern member states which are not willing to accept more refugees should be punished financially, the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán defended the fence between Hungary and Serbia as an act to protect European values. Although this sounds cynical, it is also realistic since Europe is still divided over the issue and the gates of fortress Europe have become more closed against people from so-called safe countries although fewer numbers of refugees entered the EU in 2016. The experience of terrorist attacks, especially in France and Belgium, which fueled debates on the “clash of civilizations”, the British vote to leave the EU and the recent attempted military coup in Turkey make a sustainable humanitarian solution less likely to occur since these topics overlap on the European agenda.

While these developments are not very satisfying for enthusiasts of European integration, they do show that cooperation within Europe is more necessary than ever. In addition, they show that knowledge about Europe and the peculiar situation in its member states is a very important component of academic education. Hence, to study European politics is not at all outdated but a plus! And from what I experienced during my stay, the conditions to do at UNC are perfect. What impressed me most was that students were not only highly motivated but also very well informed. Thus, I could only tell my German colleagues in Berlin that UNC is a very inspiring place to study the EU, also from the other side of the Atlantic!


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