Utrecht University: Femke van Esch appointed Professor of European Governance and Leadership of the European Union

As of 1 September 2021 Femke van Esch external linkhas been appointed Professor of European Governance and Leadership of the European Union at the Utrecht University School of Governance (USG) of the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance. In her chair, she wants to emphasise two aspects of European Union governance and policy: legitimacy and leadership.

‘I think it is important for academics to study the things that citizens are interested in and the way in which Europe enters their living rooms,’ says Femke van Esch. ‘And political leaders play a big role in this. At the same time, the European Union is set up in such a way that no top-down leadership is possible: none of the countries, none of the institutions, none of the leaders is boss over the others. You often hear that Brussels imposes something on us, but in Brussels our own ministers are making the decisions. So if you want to influence the EU, you don’t necessarily have to be in Brussels, but also in The Hague.’

Prof. Femke van Esch holds an expertise in leadership, European (economic and monetary) integration and the method of comparative cognitive mapping (CCM). In her PhD-thesis she studied the role of leaders’ beliefs in the establishment of the European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU).

In her research, Van Esch studies the European response to European crises and the legitimacy of EU leadership, focusing in particular on the role of leaders’ beliefs, national culture and the political psychological dimension of legitimacy. She was workpackage leader and part of the management board of the Horizon2020 Transcrisis Project, which focused on the topic of enhancing the EU’s transboundary crisis management capacities and multi-level leadership (https://www.transcrisis.eu/). In addition, she initiated several projects geared towards developing cognitive mapping as a research method to study both the policy ideas of political elite and the views of European citizens about the European Union.

Femke van Esch is the coordinator of the interdisciplinary, double-degree Law Economics and Governance Faculty Master’s Programme European Governance that is offered in collaboration with the Masaryk University Brno, University of Konstanz and University College Dublin. Over the years, Van Esch has taught numerous courses in European governance, leadership, international relations, political science, public administration and qualitative research and has won the USG Best Young Teacher’s Award twice. She is a member of the Faculty Council, part of the USG Board of Academic Studies and was president of the USG Curriculum Committee.

In addition to her academic work, Van Esch frequently engages in public and policy debates on leadership and European Governance with blogs and media appearances. From 2011-2019 she was a member of the Commission European Integration of the Advisory Council of International Affairs which advises the Dutch Ministers of Foreign Affairs and European Affairs, and the Minister of Defence.

Legitimacy and Leadership in the EU
As a professor, Femke van Esch wants to emphasise two aspects of European Governance more explicitly: legitimacy and leadership. To what extent is leadership of the EU and within the EU legitimate? How does it work and how do citizens respond to it?

‘European studies deals a lot with the institutions, the European Commission as well as European policy,’ says Femke van Esch. ‘In the media, however, it is often about the faces, about the important leaders: what is Merkel doing, what did Orbán say and how does Rutte respond? Especially in crisis situations the leaders play an important role and determines to a large extent what the citizens know about Europe. I think it is important, as an academic, that you also research the issues that citizens are interested in, study the way in which Europe enters their living rooms. That is my ambition.

When we as citizens look at the European Union, we see leaders from a distance, leaders with whom we have less interaction than with our national politicians. That distance creates a different dynamic in how citizens think about the EU and about its leadership. It works in the same way as with movie stars: what we know is largely determined by what leaders themselves communicate and how it gets reported in the media. Framing. That is what citizens see and what they base their opinions on. In the case of national political leaders, you have different, more personal experiences and more diverse sources of information. You may wish that there was less distance between the citizens and the EU, but as a researcher I mainly want to explore how it works.’

The European Union is set up in such a way that no top-down leadership is possible: none of the countries, none of the institutions, none of the leaders is in charge of the others.

Femke van Esch
Femke van Esch
‘If things go wrong, Europe gets blamed and if there is success, national politicians take the credit, that is also part of the process of framing. At the same time, whenever there is a crisis, as is currently the case with Covid-19, there is a call for more European leadership, centralisation of power and vision. But that is an empty call, because when you ask for vision, what vision are you asking for? There are quite a few different visions of the future of the EU. Moreover, this call is based on an outdated, top-down conception of leadership that does not suit the EU. Just imagine that the EU comes in and tell us what we would have to do, then suddenly we don’t like leadership very much anymore.

The European Union is structured in such a way that no top-down leadership is possible: none of the countries, none of the institutions, none of the leaders is the in charge of others’, Van Esch continues. ‘You often hear that Brussels imposes policies on us. But what does the EU impose on us? Only what we have asked the EU to impose on us. The EU is not outside of us, we are Europe. In Brussels our own ministers make the decisions, together with ministers from other countries. Afterwards they sometimes grumble about the decisions they themselves have taken.’

Crisis after crisis keeps the EU on the agenda
‘I don’t have a strong ideological view on the EU myself,’ says Femke van Esch. ‘I don’t think there should necessarily be a supranational central authority in the EU, for example. I do think it is important to tell citizens where they should go if they want to persuade the EU to do something, or not to do something. Where can they make their voice heard, how can they protest effectively, where can exert they influence? The answer is often that you do not necessarily have to travel to Brussels, but also to The Hague. Or to The Hague and Paris and Berlin.

When it comes to the European approach to (Covid) health care policy, for example, the Council of Ministers – which includes our own Minister of Health – ultimately decides. He, in turn, is controlled by the national Parliament. Prime Minister Rutte and the European Parliament also have a say, of course, but if you want to say something about this, you can’t skip The Hague. The Council of Ministers is, by the way, just about the most important decision making body within the EU and we actually see very little of it in the news. That is striking and a pity.

In the years to come, I will also engage in further research on European monetary policy, one of my areas of expertise. It will be interesting to see how, for instance, Christine Lagarde operates at the ECB and what Merkel’s successor will do. Whether the ideas of individual leaders can steer policy, or not. The fact that Europe is now taking out joint loans, that there is a lot of economic stimulation, was seen as a big taboo for years. The fact that even the Germans are now in favour of this is an interesting turn of events.

I am going to miss Angela Merkel, by the way. I have to look for a new favourite leader,’ she says, laughing. But Van Esch will certainly not be bored: ‘When I started studying the EU, Europe was still a boring subject, but in the meantime our courses and Master’s Programme have been very popular for years. One crisis after another keeps the EU on the agenda, and that creates a lot of interest from students.’

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