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“We don’t want to produce scholars who stay in their ivory tower”

This week, The VUB Institute for European Studies and Vesalius College announced their alliance in the form of the Brussels School of Governance. Karel De Gucht, the institute’s new president, explains what distinguishes the Brussels School of Governance from its competitors. “If we want to successfully address the most important policy challenges, we have to look at how they interact with each other,” he says. “The open mind and broad view this requires is in our very DNA.”

“Globally speaking, Brussels is the second-most important city when it comes to diplomacy," says De Gucht. "After Washington D.C., the city has the second-highest number of diplomats. You have to have a school of public policy in this context and we now have one with the Brussels School of Governance.”

What is the Brussels School of Governance?
“It’s an alliance between the two VUB institutions that focus on international politics: the Institute for European Studies (IES-VUB), an autonomous entity of the university, and Vesalius College (VeCo), a private initiative modelled after a US-style college. We are now fusing these two into the Brussels School of Governance in order to gain more critical mass.”

What prompted this fusion? 
“As an institute, we teach public policy and also have a think-tank that carries out its own research as well as research for third parties. By combining the people and resources of IES-VUB and VeCo, we’ll be able to go deeper and wider in our teaching and research. Our think-tank will for instance comprise some 200 people, which means we will most likely become the biggest institute in Brussels. But our aim isn’t to do this in an ivory tower and for our own merit. We are also doing this to increase our relevance to broader society.”

 

The Prime Minister of Belgium giving a speech during the launch of the Brussels School of Govenance

What do you mean?
“With this alliance, we want to increase our impact on the world at large. We want to become the leading reference for public policy in Brussels when it comes to our four areas of focus: the environment, digitalisation, migration, and defence and security – for Flemish and international media, as well as for other scientific institutions. With tens of researchers working in each of these areas, we have the expertise it takes.”

What distinguishes the Brussels School of Governance from its competitors?
“If you’re looking at defence and security, you also have to examine the broader problem of migration. If you’re studying global warming, you also have to acknowledge its impact on society. In other words, our four areas of focus all influence one another and they’re all interconnected. They all bring challenges with them that we will not be able to address unless we take a closer look at how they interact with each other. And that interconnectedness is in the very DNA of the Brussels School of Governance.” 

What is the educational and research policy of the Brussels School of Governance vis-à-vis these four areas of focus?
“We want to foreground the role that free inquiry should play in each of these areas. We think we have a societal role to play here. We don’t look at these four areas through a conservative lens. Instead, we approach them with an open and forward-thinking mind. It’s an attitude that is most beautifully described in the university’s motto – thinking should never let itself be subjugated.”

The Brussels School of Governance uses career-focused teaching methods. What does this mean exactly?
“We don’t want to produce scholars who stay in their ivory towers. Instead, we want them to fully assume their role, be it in society, the world of business, the academic world or in international institutions. We want to send graduates into the world who have the perfect training to navigate the multifunctional and multimodal world I was talking about earlier.”

What role do you want the Brussels School of Governance to play in society?
“I want us to become more relevant internationally and I want us to attract ever more and ever larger numbers of international students. Because these international students are ultimately the ones who are formed against a certain backdrop and who propagate the thinking we hold dear in their own environment and the world at large. When we train students from Nigeria, Kenya or Bangladesh, they return to their home countries with a particular baggage. You can count on it that they will go on to play a role in their own societies. That dissemination of our approach and our thinking based on free inquiry is a very important societal objective.”

Under the European Commission’s Green Deal, we’ll have to transition to a carbon-neutral society by 2050. Do you think that’s realistic?
“The investments that will have to be made to get there are enormous. How do you make this transition without completely disrupting the economy that enormously impacts people’s income? That’s the big challenge."

"It certainly is possible, but it will require an interplay between private players and the government. We won’t get there if we simply tell businesses that they’ll just have to figure out for themselves how to become carbon-neutral by 2050. Public funds will have to be invested to help companies make this transition. When you have a clear commitment from the government, it moreover becomes easier to obtain private funds. Because there definitely is enough money in the world to achieve this transition. We just have to channel those funds in the right direction.” 

How do you think relations between China and the EU will evolve in the coming years?
“China is becoming more and more of a closed society. There is a lot less room for citizen’s own initiatives and thinking now than 10 years ago. Europe can only play a midfielder role between the different world powers if China does not pursue policies that preclude such a role. If China continues its autocratic reign however, Europe will have no choice but to take position in the anti-China corner. So, the question is whether China will realise this. I’m inclined to think it won’t.”

Because of the corona pandemic, the subject of migration has receded into the background at the moment. What role do you think migration will play in the next elections? 
“When one begins start scratching at the human soul, the layer that emerges is migration for a lot of people. In other words, if certain political parties fervently start doing that kind of soul-scratching in the run-up to the elections, migration will once again become an important topic. But it’s just as possible that the economic recovery and the accompanying tax measures as well as climate change will become the most important subjects once we leave this pandemic behind us. It’s possible that migration will in fact fade into the background in that context.”  

What is the most important challenge facing policymakers when it comes to digital technologies and democracy?
“One of the most important discussions we are facing at the moment is how to regulate social media but prevent that these rules infringe on freedom of speech. How do you create rules for social media companies that prevent systematic disinformation but at the same time don’t muzzle free speech? It’s a subject that divides opinion. In the US, the idea that there should be freedom of speech across the board is strong. In other words, people should have the right to proclaim the greatest possible nonsense. I also tend to lean toward this view, but when this means that only this sort of nonsense gets airplay, you can of course end up in a very different kind of society. It’s why this is an incredibly significant problem at the moment.”