The Split Self: Europe in the Age of Populism European Affairs Event Review

From Friday 13th to Sunday 15th of November after months of excel spreadsheets, plenty of emails, slack notifications, and careful planning; the Policy Centre of European Affairs’ second event came to fruition: the KTT Policy Hackathon.

Loosely inspired by MIT’s virtual hackathons, it presented a 24-hour challenge to finish a comprehensive policy brief in teams of three to four people. Participants were invited to debate the issue of European cohesion in the age of populism: How should the EU strengthen European identity to counterbalance Eurosceptic forces?. Over 24 hours the participants debated and discussed questions of European identity, how to counter Eurosceptic forces and much more, to come up with a policy paper that provided solutions to these questions. The hackathon saw 18 participants come together in 5 small teams and successfully present a diverse range of remarkable policy briefs on Sunday morning.

In order to support the participants in their efforts to write policy options the hackathon provided seminars throughout the challenge.

Kicking off the Hackathon on Friday was Dr. Alen Toplišek who introduced the technical skills on “How to write a policy brief”. In a thirty minute workshop Dr Toplišek explained that a policy brief had to be concise and focussed, while still providing the decision-maker with a variety of policy options. The session proved invaluable for all participants and certainly contributed to the high quality of the submitted briefs. 

The challenge officially commenced early Saturday morning at 9.30 am where all participants were welcomed in a webinar and given the key details by event coordinator and European Affairs liaison Joao Pereira. Dr. Simona Guerra gave an introductory session on Euroscepticism and questions of European identity. Her insights into oscillating (and recently decreasing) levels of trust in European institutions, as well as an introduction to academic approaches that can be used to measure public opinion on the EU provided a great overview of the current challenges to European cohesion. With a first conclusion that “the EU needs to be both constructed and experienced” Dr. Guerra and the Policy Centre for European Affairs let participants get started on their policy briefs.

The hackathon aimed to provide participants with nuanced and in-depth knowledge on European identity and populism. As such, the second workshop of the day, run by Dr. Emilia Palonen, aimed to provide an overview of populism as a concept both in theory and in practice. Dr Palonen talked about her research focus of populism in Hungary and how populists often seek to hegemonize religion for their own doctrine. All in all, the talk provided an insightful account of how populist narratives are inherent to democracies to some extent, but also how this phenomenon can get out of hand quickly. 

The policy hackathon ran another seminar, this time given by Dr. Russell Foster on what is “European Identity”. Talking about how European identity is constructed and deconstructed at different times and how it distinguishes itself from populism, the seminar was an essential addition to understanding the challenge and formulating policy recommendations. A noteworthy feature was that it also introduced the participants to the concept of “thymos” (sense of self-worth) and its role in how people identify the “other” and the “self” in contemporary politics.

Finally, Sunday morning marked the end of the challenge with the teams presenting their policy briefs to the panel of judges fresh and early at 9 am. Five teams presented their solutions, which ranged from EU foreign policy and climate change action to electoral structures and education campaigns. The judges expressed much commendation for all the policy briefs and their engagement with the question. The Policy Centre for European Affairs is happy to announce that the policy hackathon yielded policy options of very high academic quality and showed both commitment to the challenge and thorough analysis of the topic.

After much consideration, the judges presented the winner of the policy hackathon during the closing session. We would hereby like to congratulate Ewa, Ottavia and Cassandra from Team 5 for placing first with their policy brief! Having recognized the multi-level challenge Euroscepticism posed to EU identity and the threat that arises with marginalizing Eurosceptic concerns, their recommended policy proposal suggested fixing the EU’s democratic deficits by introducing measures such as digital democracy and European citizen initiatives but also paid attention to how re-legitimizing EU civil society could weaken the populist forces. With their innovative approaches to tackling Euroscepticism and the highest degree of critical examination of “populism” and the “lack of legitimacy for the European integration process” Team 5 were deservedly awarded first place in the competition.

We, from the Policy Centre for European Affairs, would like to extend our gratitude to the seminar leaders and judges who devoted time to support the participants and made this challenge happen. Thank you to Mr. Bartha and EPICENTRE, Mr. Andor from the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), Mr. Lehne who joined us from Carnegie Europe and Dr. Palonen from the University of Helsinki. A special thank you to Dr. Toplišek and Dr. Foster from King’s College London for their invaluable academic input offered in the seminars. We are also most thankful to Dr. Guerra who spent most of her weekend providing expert support for the participants throughout the hackathon and as a jury member.

And finally, congratulations Joao and Jonas thank you for realizing such a successful and unforgettable event.

By Mirjam Seiler and Jonas Decker 

Mirjam is a third year History and International Relations student interested in EU immigration policies and theories of democracy. She is currently the editor of the Policy Centre for European Affairs.

Jonas is a third year International Relations student with a particular research interest in post-Cold War imaginations and European identity. He is the Director of the Policy Centre for European Affairs this year.

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