Collateral damage: The EUI, Brexit and institutional logics

Let me put my hands up on this one right at the start: I’m writing about this because it’s a more familiar case to me than many others. I know and work with several people at the European University Institute, even though I’ve not had any formal link with the place.

For those unfamiliar with the EUI, it’s a postgraduate and post-doctoral research centre, established in the early 1970s, specialising on various aspects of European governance and law and based in a charming village in the hills above Florence. It’s a world-class institution, both in terms of the work it produces and the reputation it holds among academics and various EU circles: scarcely a week goes by without someone very important giving a speech there.

In short, it’s an excellent example of what can come from international collaboration on research.

So today’s question is then, why is the UK leaving it?

Yesterday the government published a statutory instrument to the effect that the UK would no longer be a signatory to the Convention establishing the EUI come the end of EU membership, so needed to remove any implications of that Convention from UK law.

The memorandum attached notes that “The European Communities (Definition of Treaties) Order 1975 (SI 1975/408) designates the Convention as an “EU Treaty” as defined in section 1 of the European Communities Act 1972” and as such it falls when the UK is no longer an EU member state.

But let’s explore this further.

As the memorandum also notes “The Convention Setting up a European University Institute is an international agreement”, so let’s go read that Convention.

Article 1 starts with “By this Convention, the Member States of the European Communities (hereinafter called the “Contracting States”) jointly set up the European University Institute (hereinafter called the “Institute”).” This is probably the root of the issue, since it links the EC (as it was at the time of signing) with membership. Article 32(1) might seem to underline that point by noting “Any Member State of the European Communities besides the Contracting States may accede to this Convention”, which they all have.

However, let’s compare this with the other case you’ve heard about, namely the EEA.

In that treaty, membership of the UK is very clearly a function of being a member of the EU (see Article 2): the activity of the EEA can only happen with EU membership for non-EFTA members.

But the EUI Convention isn’t like that. The very limited function of the Institute requires nothing of signatories that springs from their EU membership: states could sign up as EU members, but not because of it.

Put differently, while the Convention requires signatories to be EU members when they join, it does not require them to leave when they stop.

So what, you ask: it’s just a bunch of academics swanning about in Tuscany.

Well, no, it’s not (and they don’t). Three key reasons stand out.

Firstly, the government (and Leavers) have repeatedly stressed that the UK is leaving the EU, not Europe. If there is a concern that other links should be maintained post-withdrawal, then it seems odd to take the position that any more than the bare minimum of ties be cut. In this case, the Convention carries minimal financial liabilities or freedom of movement implications. Indeed, this particular case represents a cutting off of what could potentially be a key avenue for informal discussions with key people from across Europe.

Secondly, the government has consistently claimed that it wants to keep close ties on research and education. After the whole Galileo saga and the on-going refusal to remove students from immigration figures, the move to end involvement in the EUI looks more like a revealed preference for less cooperation, somewhat perversely after the UK’s concerns about the CEU in Budapest. As my timeline yesterday highlighted, that will feed (and has fed) back into the UK HE sector.

Finally, this whole case shows the difficulties of managing a massive change in public policy. The statutory instrument makes no mention of what happens to existing UK nationals studying or working at the EUI, nor of how to handle any liabilities. As one of several hundred SIs that the UK needs to put into effect by the day of withdrawal, it will get minimal scrutiny, even as it has assorted effects that look unnecessary or even pernicious.

And there we have it: another small example of how Brexit is going to have effects far beyond the immediate circle of impacts that we usually discuss.