The purpose of the Short Term Scientific Mission (STSM) in Rome was preparing a new publication on “Decentring European Foreign Policy Analysis in a non-European world”, following my 2018 article on the same theme in Cooperation and Conflict with Sharon Lecocq. The affiliation with our COST partners in Rome, Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), would allow me to take advantage of their expertise about not only EU foreign policy but also the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The STSM became shorter than expected as a result of the Corona outbreak: events were cancelled, the physical premises of IAI and all Italian universities were closed, and eventually all of Italy came under strict lockdown. At that time, most European countries (and scholars) did not yet realize this trajectory would soon hit them as well.
The lockdown in Italy and early return to Leuven implied that several of the planned activities and meetings were put on hold. However, I would like to use this short blog post to reflect on two dilemmas related to academic research that were highlighted during an enlightening closed-door IAI seminar on the crisis in Libya and during subsequent informal talks – dilemmas which reflected some of my earlier research experiences.
Dilemma 1. Regarding sensitive foreign policy and security issues, the most crucial data and insight are often obtained from informal chats and closed-door meetings (under Chatham House rules), implying that they cannot formally be referred to. Although the resulting knowledge can be much more valuable and even give a completely different picture about the situation, standard methodological rules and GDPR increasingly require scholars set aside these insights in favour of information obtained through publically available sources, formal interviews and surveys. One can wonder about the value of academic research that disregards such kinds of insights that are obtained informally and confidentially.
Dilemma 2. Seminars and talks with practitioners and analysts from third countries towards which European foreign policy is directed (and that are thus also the subject of research by EU foreign policy scholars), often bring to the fore concepts, actors, values, phenomena, etc. that they consider of crucial importance to understand dynamics in their country, but that may not fit – or are even excluded – in the research interests, academic vocabulary and analytical frameworks of EU foreign policy scholars. Two examples mentioned by interlocutors from the MENA region are religious values and ‘tribes’. The latter example even points to a larger dilemma and paradox: how to deal with phenomena and concepts such as ‘tribes’, which Western scholars increasingly point to as definitely to be avoided in academic research (in view of its (neo-)colonial connotations), but which some MENA practitioners and analysts refer to as definitely not to be disregarded. These issues point to wider and fundamental debates about ‘decolonising’ academic research and on the appropriation, selective use or silencing of ‘non-European’ data, concepts and world views by European scholar – a theme that does not appear very high on the agenda of EU foreign policy scholars.
These two dilemma’s may be recognizable or touch a nerve among other EU foreign policy scholars – and may be worth a broader debate in one of the following ENTER activities. To conclude, I also wish to express my gratitude to Hila Zahavi and Sigita Urdze for taking good care of the STSMs, to the colleagues at IAI and to Riccardo Alcaro, Daniela Huber and Lorenzo Kamel in particular. I am looking forward to continuing our academic exchanges in post-Corona times!