Erik Jones is Professor of European Studies and International Political Economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and Senior Research Associate at the Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI) in Milan. From September 1, 2021, Professor Jones will become Director of the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute. Professor Jones is the author of The politics of economic and monetary union (2002), Economic adjustment and political transformation in small states (2008), Tired Policeman: American Power in the Age of Austerity (2012 – with Dana H. Allin) and The year the European crisis ended (2014). He is the editor or co-editor of a number of books and special editions of magazines on subjects related to European politics and political economy, including reference books such as The European Union’s Oxford Handbook (2012) and The Oxford Handbook of Italian Politics (2015). Professor Jones is co-editor of Government and opposition and a contributing editor for to survive.
Where do you see the most exciting research / debate in your field?
The field is exploding with exciting lines of research. Many of them are synthetic. We discussed populism for a long time, but now we see an overlap between populism research, democratic stability, economic performance and world order. It’s exciting to watch the different communities interact and make new connections because it tells you something you may not know about how the world works, and because it inspires you to return to pieces written long ago and see them in a new light.
I could make a point similar to how we study economic policy. This is a good time to examine the interaction between fiscal policy, monetary policy, financial stability and capital markets. We learn so much about the complex dynamics that bring these different areas together and how much we have either ignored or forgotten in the literature written over the past few decades. Anything that questions what you think you know and forces you to think about your basic assumptions is worth thinking about. That is what makes it an endless source of inspiration to be in this business for so long.
Finally, and most importantly, I think we can learn a lot from the experiences of the people who live in Central and Eastern Europe. We have finally gone beyond the idea that Western European countries, policymakers, and academics will reshape Central and Eastern Europe in their own image. We have even gone beyond assessing how well the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have done in their double transition after communism. The conversation is now more exciting because people are paying close attention to what we can learn from all parts of Europe in order to improve our understanding of European politics, society and economic performance.
How has the way you understand the world changed over time and what (or who) sparked the most important changes in your thinking?
My understanding of the world has changed in such a way that I constantly revise the things I think I know well and see how much I need to learn. Most of these questions are raised by students and young academics. These are usually the people who ask the toughest questions and who seem less convention-based. It takes a lot of hard work on the part of the scientific community to force these younger researchers to abide by the standards of adequacy and respect for which our profession is famous (or notorious). Working with junior researchers before they become fully paid members of the club makes it difficult for me to get too comfortable with my own worldview. This feeling of discomfort or discomfort – the fear of “cheat syndrome” – is important to the way I work and why I enjoy staying in my job.
However, early career researchers have not only taught me this confidence, they have also shown me how to use that same understanding of the informal rules, norms, and conventions of academic life to unpack the things I study too. Now I spend a lot of time understanding the informal institutions that structure politics, economics, and politics. I can hardly claim to be a pioneer in this area (or in self-reflective practice). Most of my mentors followed the same pattern, and I suspect I played the role in their lives that many of the early career students I worked with did – or at least I hope I did! My point is just that the way I think about the world and what I think about the world seem to have evolved the same way, and I have young researchers to say thank you for that development.
What concrete steps has the European Union taken to mitigate and combat the economic pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic?
This isn’t really a paragraph or two question. What I find most interesting about the European response is how quickly policymakers have given up normal business. They overrode the rules of market competition and the coordination of macroeconomic policies. They pushed for the use of unconventional monetary policy instruments or instrument settings. You have rediscovered the resilience of well-endowed welfare state institutions and decided to experiment with a common European financial solution. These things are all important.
Even more important, in my opinion, is how well the last crisis prepared European leaders to respond to the economic consequences of the pandemic. I shudder to think how the European institutions might have reacted without this painful experience and without all the experimentation and reflection that have taken place over the past decade. This time they just had less time to study on the job. So I get away with two clear implications: the first is that the EU is able to learn from its own mistakes, and on a large scale; Second, Member States recognize the advantages of being part of a larger organization like the European Union. This organization can fail at times, and it can fail in important ways, but it is also getting better at helping the people of Europe solve problems that their national governments alone cannot address so effectively. My colleagues Sophie Meunier and Dan Kelemen call this pattern “fail forward”.
To what extent has the EU managed to lead the bloc through the pandemic and cope with related problems such as economic relief and vaccinations? Has multinational governance helped or hindered Europe’s response to COVID-19?
I am a little cautious when it comes to giving the European Union an “agency” that is independent of the governments of the Member States. Did the EU lead the bloc? The EU is the bloc; The leadership came from people, some of whom worked in European institutions, some in national governments, and many outside the political community. Still, I want to highlight the roles that people like Margrethe Vestager, Philip Lane and Isabelle Schnabel play. I would also like to underline the importance of those who opposed European projects until a strong consensus could be reached around them, such as Mark Rutte or Sanna Marin. There were people who did well and then badly, like Giuseppe Conte, and others who did badly and then well. This is where I am tempted to put Boris Johnson in, but it is difficult because his record is so mixed on so many issues – but I think you see what I mean.
How is the European response to the COVID-19 pandemic compared to dealing with previous European crises?
The European response to this crisis was quicker for two reasons. First, government policies were the source of the economic shock. If you tell people to stay home, bad things will happen to your economy that you can easily imagine. This is not how the previous crisis turned out. On the contrary, this crisis was marked by uncertainty about what caused the damage and how that damage would manifest itself. Second, most of the things that European politicians did this time were debated at length in the last crisis. It’s easier to make decisions quickly when you already know all of the arguments and can guess where everyone stands on various issues. Of course there were new wrinkles in the current crisis. It has been more than a century since Europe experienced a pandemic of this magnitude. The response on the disease side of the equation was slower, more confusing, and more complicated. In this sense, the two crises were comparable. But I am a political economist, not an epidemiologist or public health scholar. On the political economy side, the response this time was easier to anticipate and tackle than the last.
How could the economic disparities in relation to the pandemic be addressed at EU level?
That is a difficult question. We are pushing the limits of European solidarity. No national public will seek to transfer funds to another country, no matter how strong the justification. That means we must patiently support each other as the countries hardest hit by the crisis pull themselves together again. It also means that these countries are likely to face heavy debt burdens for a long time. I would like to encourage European policymakers to approach this situation with flexibility and understanding. This is no time for hard rules or strict admonitions. However, I doubt we’ll see that. Instead, I suspect there will be significant pressure to quickly revert to a rules-based system that puts most of the adjustment burden on the weakest countries.
How do you forecast that European integration will change and develop in the coming months and years?
The pattern can already be seen. We can see some major innovation, but we can also see significant reluctance. I suspect that the European Union will be confused on important issues. The Commission will play a more important role in coordinating policy. The European Central Bank will struggle to find a way to reduce its unconventional monetary policy positions. The European Council will deal with a wide variety of hot button issues related to the rule of law and migration, as well as economic convergence and divergence, and Member States will struggle with their own political developments, not all of which will lead to greater stability.
This is a messy picture and so difficult to characterize as a cohesive project. But Europe is what it is. I do not see that the European Union is collapsing as a result of these developments, nor do I see that it is welcoming the Member States into a close association. As a result, future students of European integration will marvel at the complexity of their subject, as will scientists of my generation in the 1990s and early 2000s, and just like our predecessors in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
What is the most important advice you can give to young international relations scholars?
Ask the simple questions and challenge the answers you get. The things that scare me in life are not the things that I don’t know. If these things scared me, I would be scared all the time. There’s a lot that I don’t know. When any of these things get important I can usually figure out roughly what it is and then figure out what to do about it. That’s what I’m trained for. Young researchers now have a much better education than me. I don’t need to encourage them to use these skills.
The things that scare me are the things that I know are true and that are false. I’m not good at questioning my own beliefs. If early stage researchers don’t question those beliefs – the things high-level scientists know are true – then I doubt I’ll question them, and neither will my friends and colleagues. If these beliefs turn out to be false, we are all in trouble. That’s why I encourage young researchers to ask the simple questions and then challenge the answers. It can lead to some awkward conversations, but that awkwardness is a good sign, not a bad one.
I encourage these young researchers to ask the awkward questions and challenge the answers ASAP. Our profession has strict informal rules that underpin conformity and respect for authority. These rules are seductively easy to internalize. The temptation is hard to resist, even if we all do at some point.
Further reading on e-international relations