Hello, you are listening to De Facto, a podcast of the Faculty of Social Sciences of Charles University, today with Alice Němcová Tejkalová and Associate Professor Tomáš Weiss from the Institute of International Studies.
Tomáš, we’ve known each other for years, we met at the Academic Senate, where you were also the chairman. What makes one become an academic senator?
That’s a good question, I think it’s the same thing that makes people go into politics. When you are interested in things around you and at one moment it dawns on you that it is not enough just to be interested and that you would also like to influence something a bit from time to time. And the Senate is a good place to influence. Because one is closer to the people who make decisions and is also closer to the moments when decisions are made.
You are treating the European question, European politics, when the states are polarizing themselves today in their ethnicities, they tend to have centrifugal tendencies. Is the European question still current?
Absolutely, the European question must be relevant, and it has always been relevant to us, even when there was no European Union. Because the European question is, in essence, about the way we live with our neighbors, how we resolve conflicts with them, how we work with them, how we generate common stances. And the EU is the institutional framework within which we do all this. And, of course, I want to know how this institutional framework works, how it contributes to it, how it can hinder or complicate the situation on some issues while seeking to find common ground. And I think we have to keep our interest in that.
There are a lot of people who see the EU as restrictive. You yourself have said that in some cases it can be complicating, what would you say is – on the contrary – positive?
I think that primarily the key added value for the Czech Republic and the people of the Czech Republic is that we have the ability to influence the things that happen around us. As a member of the EU, we can sit at a table where it is decided what the world around us looks like. And the moment we weren’t at that table, it would still be decided there, just without us. Of course, we are relatively small, we are relatively incompetent, which is our problem, it is not objective. But definitely, we have more influence at the table than if we weren’t at that table. And the vast majority of the things we think we could pass our decision on would actually have to be decided by us in the same way bearing in mind and with regard to what has been decided at that table. Some sovereignty that is being talked about is big fiction. Formally, it does exist, but informally the sovereign states still have to take into account what is happening around them. Even if we were not in the EU, the Union would still be around us. In the same way, within the framework of our sovereignty, we would have to restrict ourselves in one way or another and actually decide in accordance with what Europe decides.
You have very nicely named what we often think of ourselves as being extremely important. After all, we used to be for a long time the state that determined the dynamics of this region, but at the same time we were even longer the one that did not. Nevertheless, what’s deeply rooted in us is the sentiment that we could do it ourselves better than when being part of some larger whole. Is the Austro-Hungarian and historical experience to blame for the way people view the EU? That we were part of a great power that decided for us and we were not so important. And later the same with the inclusion in the Eastern Bloc?
I am not a sociologist to be able to answer what society thinks, nor am I a historian to be able to fully estimate how Czech society worked under Austria-Hungary. What I will present is my subjective point of view, which is based on following the current debate on Europe and the European Union. I think it’s largely an alibistic approach, an inability to take responsibility for one’s own destiny, one’s own decision. It’s always easier to say, “Well, it’s the bad Vienna, the bad Moscow, the bad Brussels.” Not to have to say – we want this and these are the risks and these are the gains, so we choose this and that from the options on the table. And when one looks back at the debate over the EU in the last twenty years, there have been very few politicians able to say, “I am choosing this alternative and I am taking responsibility for it.” That society works in exactly the same way is partly due to the fact that we have such politicians, but of course we have such politicians because society values and accepts this sort of behavior. I think that a small part of us is able to take responsibility for our actions. I don’t know if it’s due to our upbringing, or if it’s a school system that can go back to Maria Theresa and Austria-Hungary. Or if we learned in the years of communism and from home that something else is said outside, something else is said at home. This is already a question for sociologists, but I see it very intensely in the Czech attitude towards the EU.
You spent a year at the University of Cambridge and had the opportunity to observe how the British relate to the EU. You were in Britain before it left the EU. Why do they also view the EU in a very polarized way?
I was indeed in Cambridge between 2018-2019, but I’m not entirely sure to what extent Cambridge is Britain. And I’m even less sure to what extent the University of Cambridge is Britain. It’s an international bubble, where there are of course plenty of people who supported Britain leaving the EU for all sorts of reasons, but it’s not Britain that ultimately decided, it’s not the mass. On the other hand, I have a family in Britain, so I had been there many times before. Britain is an important European country, so I’ve always followed the British debate and I feel that the British debate is similar in certain aspects to the Czech one. There has never been a full understanding of what the added value of European integration actually is. The second problem was that the press was never interested, I think the press and the media in the UK have always been a bit specific, different from, let’s say, Germany or France. They are much more market-oriented, profit-oriented, which has affected the way they present these rather intricate issues of European integration. To understand why this is profitable and why it is not just bureaucracy is objectively quite a complicated matter, so I understand that the media are not very keen on this, which, after all, is what we are seeing in here as well. And a certain kind of political culture in Britain has also contributed to that, the escalation of the two-party system. And the pro-remain party failed the campaign a lot, but it was also hard to make the campaign any better. There were a lot of factors that ultimately contributed to that relatively slim yet convincing margin.
How do you stay in touch with your colleagues at the University of Cambridge?
It’s quite difficult, online. On the other hand, when I was there, a colleague and I organized a workshop on small states in the European security, which eventually produced a book. And now it should come out in Routledge. I have bought a ticket back to Cambridge several times since then, I have booked housing, but actually because of the pandemic, I haven’t been there since. But we definitely plan returning there for a week once a year, for example, to renew some of the ties, both in academic and friendship matters, that we built there over that year.
As part of your E-note project, you are now organizing an online conference that will focus on the ability of university staff to teach. Why is it important for university teachers to have enough didactic skills, and why don’t we get to them until we actually start teaching?
Nobody has ever told me how to teach. In the end, I don’t teach badly, but it’s rather a coincidence than anything else. And, of course, it’s in the end up to the students to decide, not me. I think this is something that is very underestimated here in the Czech Republic. Not that this is not the case in other countries, as we are definitely not alone in this regard. But in Britain, for example, universities have long found that not only research but also teaching is one of their important functions. While they educate their graduates on how to do research and educate them extremely well in doctoral studies, they also assume that they will be able to teach by doing research. In Britain, there is a minimum standard for future teachers to study during their doctoral studies. In other countries, such as the Netherlands, universities have agreed independently of the state to frame their own system in which each of them will teach their staff how to teach. We have no such thing in here. Europe is somehow integrating and is also integrating in the field of university education; we have something called the European higher education area. Everyone who has been away on Erasmus knows that it is possible to study a subject elsewhere and have it recognized at home. And it’s not just students who travel, as academics travel as well. And the problem is that every academic faces different standards at home, and our colleagues in the consortium have the first-hand experience with it and say that something should be done about it. And it is precisely the fact that there is no unified standard for university teachers and that every state, every university wants something different from them, so it actually hinders the European market in some way, it hinders competition. Here is an example: There is a standard in Britain, there is a standard in the Netherlands, but if a teacher comes to the Netherlands after twenty years of teaching in Britain, he or she still has two years to meet the Dutch standards, because the British standard and his or her experience are almost not taken into account in any way. This is something that the European Commission might be interested in, of course, so our Dutch colleagues have applied for a grant and invited us into a consortium, and the effort is not only to try to define what it means to be a good university teacher, but also to try to design something that could be defined as some minimum standard that we could then offer to the universities around Europe and say, try to teach this and if you then give your teachers this certificate, other universities may also accept that this is a teacher who can teach.
You have a huge number of activities that you do, you still manage them all, which is admirable. What else you do would you like to mention here?
I am quite active in the administration, as a representative of IMS for research, we have now launched research groups at IMS, which should better identify what we do and what we seek to do in the future, where we want to be excellent in research and it should also be a tool how to involve our doctoral students in research. And then I try to do the research myself, which has been a bit of a problem in recent months, I’ve already mentioned the book before. And then I have an article that is now entering the review process. And then I’m active at the Peace Research Centre Prague, which is a university center of excellence run by Dr. Michal Smetana from IPS, but there are a few of us from IMS who also contribute to this. I’m trying to run a research seminar, I’m trying to comment together with others on the emerging research that is currently under way.
I’m holding my fingers crossed to you so that you may still do well as you’re doing now and the faculty can still be rightfully proud of you, and I’ll be looking forward to meeting you again in a podcast, in two or three years, and you will tell us what you have managed to shift forward in your activities.
I really hope I’ll have at least one more article, I’m not entirely sure though, but maybe. Thank you for the invitation.