World Insight: Brexit – a bad day for Europe, but knowledge must always cross borders

by: in General

According to Martin Paul the Brexit is a step back for Europe, but not the end of the world. The biggest threat is falling back to a form of “European Kleinstaaterei”. It is up to universities to build bridges and keep the European academic space alive.

Now we know it, the Brexit is a fact. It sadly shows what populism can do, not only in the UK. I am not a betting man, but I had expected that the United Kingdom would narrowly vote in favor of remaining in the EU. Many things will change in the long run, but what will be the effect on European academia?

Opponents of the Brexit regularly wrote in the last few weeks that a Brexit would mean the United Kingdom could no longer apply for European grants such as those from the ERC and Horizon 2020  . Actually I do not expect that this will be a major issue.

Take a look at Switzerland. It is not a member of the EU but it does participate in the European funding programmes. Admitted, in 2014 Switzerland did not receive any EU funds for a period of six months because a small majority of the Swiss voted in a referendum (!) against the influx of migrants from EU countries. After a period of six months though, the EU and Switzerland reached new agreements and things went back to the way they were.

Furthermore, Switzerland only participates to a limited extent with the EU funding for science. Similar arrangements will also apply to the United Kingdom. But is that the end the world? No.

A more serious consequence is that the Brexit will limit the mobility of researchers, educators and students. The United Kingdom will join the ranks of other countries such as Switzerland, the United States or Russia. This may also not be a huge problem.

What I am more concerned about is that the common European academic landscape is coming under threat. Up until now it always felt that the EU was our “academic homeland”: it didn't matter where you come from, it's has been a united Europe for our world. I predict that a referendum under British academics would have resulted in a big win for the anti-Brexit forces. But others have dominated the vote and I am concerned that it could be just the beginning: other countries may follow.  Euroscepticism is running high in France, the Netherlands and increasingly even in Germany and eurocritical politicians are already demanding similar referenda on Europe. And before we know it we could have Europe back as a continent with many smallish countries, which do less and less together, reminding me of the German historical situation of Kleinstaaterei (territorial fragmentation). Up until 1871, Germany was a patchwork quilt of small states and cities, each of which realised its own policy. It was only when these small states and cities united, Germany became an empire and the country could develop into a major political and economic power.

The Brexit and its possible domino effect could weaken Europe as a whole. Not only economically, but also as an academic powerhouse.  My view on this is a variant of Charles Darwin's quote: it is not the strongest species that will survive, but the most collaborative. With an exit from a common European academic ecosystem  we could end up no longer building on each other’s academic strengths, if we simply all are thrown back into our own country politics then we will find it more difficult to be visible. And that is not a good perspective. Because the real competition will be coming from India, from China and other emerging countries where strong academic structures are developing with great speed. This will have an impact on international mobility of students and researchers. As an example, large international campuses are currently developed in China, also to attract European students in the future, leading to a potential reversal of student mobility and even a potential brain drain from Europe.

So what is the consequence for academia of all this – keep calm, collaborate and try to ignore the borders, that is my solution. This is not a new concept. For decades Europe has built scientific structures that have successfully worked with a whole range of countries. Take, for example, CERN on the border of Switzerland (!) and France. There, thousands of researchers from more than eighty countries peacefully work together. A Dutch researcher once playfully suggested that CERN would definitely qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize. I think that is not such a silly idea. Perhaps as a response to the Brexit, researchers and students could strengthen their collaborations and demonstrate that we achieve far more together than we could achieve individually. And we need to form strong university networks of like-minded institutions. My own university recently has been co-founding YERUN, a network of young European research universities who have been brought together by partnering based on the results of THE’s ranking of universities younger than 50 years. And we are a member of WUN, a global network of research universities, with several British partners. These networks have their own governance and can work together as a coalition of the willing, keeping collaboration and exchange alive, even in times of increased nationalistic tendencies.

And in the case of Great Britain, let´s not panic. It is not a ship that now lifts its anchors and sails away. The British Isles will remain there, a few kilometers from the coast of France and whatever the British Eurocritics say, Europe and the UK will continue to have to deal with each other. Yes, with the Brexit, some bridges to Europe have been torn down: it is our task as universities to build new ones.

Martin Paul is president of Maastricht University.