Comparative public law in Europe
Many years ago when I was interviewed for a PhD position in EUI, one of the members of the Committee asked me: ‘Your doctoral project sounds interesting but what would be its relevance for the real world?’ The aim of my doctoral project was to analyse how the EU legal order could accommodate an intrastate conflict (Cyprus). The year was 2005, the EU was celebrating the success of the ‘Big-Bang Enlargement’ and Cyprus had just acceded to the EU without solving its problem. It seemed that a PhD on the interrelationship between EU law and secessionist conflicts was nothing more than a ‘site-specific’ case study whose conclusions could not be used more broadly.
Fast forward, 11 years later, Europe is a completely different place. There is an increasing number of active secessionist movements in places such as Scotland and Catalunya. The goal of those movements is to create independent States that will enjoy EU membership. In addition, there is a Member State that has decided to withdraw from the EU destabilising the fragile constitutional balance between its constituent nations. And Cyprus is still trying to solve its conflict.
Suddenly, my niche research project became ‘mainstream’. Questions which I had dealt with from a purely theoretical point of view such as whether a territory that has seceded from an EU Member State enjoys a right for continuing EU membership or the issue of territorial differentiations in the application of EU law became part of the political debate in a number of countries.
This became particularly apparent last summer when I published a Working Paper in the EUI series. The paper examines how it would be possible to achieve the continuing EU presence of Scotland and Northern Ireland following the Brexit referendum. It explores two pathways for those two UK constituent nations to remain in the EU. The first entails the achievement of Scottish independence and the reunification of Ireland through democratic referendums. To this effect, the paper reviews the right of secession of those two constituent nations under UK constitutional law and revisits the debate on the appropriate legal basis regulating Scotland’s future EU Accession. The second pathway explores how it would be possible for Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain in the EU even without seceding from the UK. In order to do that, the paper points to the remarkable flexibility of the EU legal order to accommodate the differentiated application of Union law.
The day after its publication, the Press Office of University of East Anglia where I work, distributed a short press release of the paper to a number of journalists. To my surprise, the following day, I saw my paper accurately summarised and discussed in two of the biggest newspapers in Scotland, The National and The Scotsman. Few days later, a similar piece appeared in BBC.
All this interest in my research made me realise that there is a real demand for accessible academic commentary on the issues that I have been working on for more than ten years. This led me to launch my website ‘On Secessions, Constitutions and EU law’. Apart from showcasing my research, it hosts a blog where I comment on the legal and political developments concerning a number of secessionist movements that take place simultaneously in Europe. Although, the website is only one month old, it has attracted significant interest already.
So, is there a lesson to be learned from this experience? To my mind, I have been able to engage with the non-academic audience in such a scale only because I have been researching those questions for a considerable amount of time. So, I feel confident that the commentary that I offer through interviews, blogposts, op-eds and newspaper articles is accurate given that it is based on solid scientific research.
Undoubtedly, the fact that my research became so topical is largely a coincidence triggered by the political developments. What was not a coincidence was my very conscious choice to engage with the non-academic audience when I realised that the right moment came.
Dr Nikos Skoutaris, Lecturer, University of East Anglia
(Suggested Citation: N. Skoutaris, “Engage when the right moment comes…”, available at https://europeancommonwealth.org/2016/10/13/nikos-skoutaris-engage-when-the-right-moment-comes)