The following blog is a transcript of an episode of #OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here
Hello and welcome to the OurBirkbeck podcast. Our Birkbeck is an exciting year-long initiative to share and showcase the impact members of the Birkbeck community are having around the world. In this podcast series you’ll hear from our alumni, students, staff and friends – whether they are making a difference in their community, bringing about change to their industry or shaping the lives of those around them – we celebrate their story. To find out more about the OurBirkbeck initiative, please visit campaign.bbk.ac.uk
In this episode of the OurBirkbeck podcast, Helen Shaw from Birkbeck’s Development and Alumni Team interviews Birkbeck alumnus Sean O’Curneen.
Hi, I’m Helen Shaw and I’m the Director of Development and Alumni at Birkbeck, and welcome to this OurBirkbeck podcast. I’m joined today by MSc European Politics alumnus Sean O’Curneen. He is the Secretary General of the Renew Europe group and is based in Brussels. Thank you so much Sean for joining us today, and I’ll hand over to you to tell us a little about yourself.
Well, Helen, pleasure to meet you – and of course all of those who will be listening hopefully to this podcast. It’s a real pleasure to be part of this really inspiring and excellent initiative by—by Birkbeck. Erm, well, a little bit about myself, I am half-Spanish, half-Irish. I was brought up in Spain, I went to a British school in Spain – primary and secondary – and the logical step afterwards, from that, was to study university in the UK. So I studied Astronomy at UCL in the late 1980s. UCL is practically next door to Birkbeck so, from very early on, I was very much aware about Birkbeck, and I walked past it a million times, went in a few times, and even knew people who were studying there.
After the degree, I decided actually to change career completely and I went to France to study journalism, and I then started working as a journalist in Paris in the English-language section of Radio France International, from which I then moved to BBC in London. And after a few years at the BBC I decided I wanted to see politics from the other side, and just at that time, so 1999 to 2000, the Greater London Authority was being established and they needed press officers, and I got a job as part of the team there. And I soon realised – and also wanted, um, to do so – but I realised that it would be really good if I was going to work in politics to have a sound academic backing, in, er, in a sound foundation in politics. And I had always been interested in politics even when I was determined to study Astronomy, so I thought, OK, this is a moment to, to really get the academic foundation, and I thought of Birkbeck.
As I mentioned earlier, I’d always known about Birkbeck and I thought it was the perfect place for me to study while I was working. And I looked at the course – European Politics, as since I have such a European background myself, I just thought that it was really perfect for me, and I was able to get in and study it for two years. And then, erm, well, after four years of working with the Mayor of London or for the Mayor of London, I heard of an opportunity in Brussels and I applied, and that was sixteen years ago I got offered the job.
I should just—I should just say that I’m Secretary General of the Renew Europe group in the European Committee of the Regions – and will talk more about what the Committee of the Regions is – but there is another Secretary General of the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament, so, there are two political groups. We’re sister groups, if you want, we have a lot of contact, we both represent liberal politicians from all over, erm, the European Union. But there is a counterpart with a very similar title but in a [laughs] in a different institution. So I’m the one in the European Committee of the Regions and I’ve been here now since 2004.
I’m glad you corrected that in case it was kind of one of those – where it’s, you know, giving you totally different rumours but it’s good to know that you’re actually quite sister kind of organisations.
No – no where – it’s a lot of people, happens to a lot of people, don’t worry [laughs]. Even in Brussels.
[Laughing] Well, that’s at least good to know. It’s – you’ve honestly had such an, an interesting journey going from astronomy to journalism and through, now, into the kind of politics and very much the other side of politics, and it would be great to kind of understand – it sounds like there’s, you know, obviously the European Union being a huge, quite complex institution, it would be great to know a little bit more about kind of the work that you do – and I know that you, you represent city mayors, regional presidents and ministers, local and regional councillors, but what does this kind of involve and how does it actually translate to impact the people in their communities?
OK, well, actually the European Committee of the Regions is the youngest of the EU institutions, it was set up in 1994 with the Maastricht Treaty. And it was set up in response to something that became, um, a problem, an issue, and that was that a lot of EU laws were having to be first implemented at the sub-national level. That’s by regional government, by local government as well. So it was recognised that they should have a say, that their point of view should be considered for enacting the laws. So at it’s very basic, erm, at the very basic level, it’s function is to ensu—to give voice to sub-national governments of the EU. There are about ninety-thousand local and regional authorities around the EU. Almost one million – or approximately one million local and regional elected politicians.
And they are responsible collectively for one-half of public investment in the EU, one-third of public expenditure, and one-quarter of tax revenue. So, when you think of it that way, you realise that the political objectives of the European Union cannot be achieved without a meaningful partnership with sub-national government. So, that – the role of the European Committee of the Regions is to make sure that the EU decision-makers are in touch with the ground – with what’s happening on the ground, and therefore, to make sure that local communities, their interests, their point of view, the diversity – the huge diversity that there is around Europe – is taken into account at the point of drafting legislation, and, erm, and making policy proposals. So, our direct task is to represent all of those local and regional politicians from around the EU, but indirectly through them, to ensure that the citizens, in all their diversity around Europe, are in touch or are heard and listened to in the process of European legislation. And, specifically, my task is to ensure that the ones who fit in the liberal political family – so we function a bit like a parliament; we have political groups, all of these mayors and regional politicians have been elected according to their national political party – and those of them who fit within the liberal political group, I manage the secretary that provides support to them for their work – to carry out their work.
Wow – I – it is, it’s, potentially sounds quite ignorant but I had no idea that that it’s, it sounds, you know as you say like one-third of expenditure in terms of over kind of a million, local kind of elected people, like that’s huge, and it’s really fascinating it’s a kind of – get an insight into some of the complex cities that I think from, dare if I say it now, from an external perspective from the UK, um, is really interesting to just how such a kind of huge and complex institution works and what that means, and as you say making sure that from the ground up people’s voices are still being heard and – and represented in legislation that ultimately affects how they are governed at a local and national level, so.
It is a monumental task, erm, but it’s not an impossible one. And, and of course, well, the UK was a member of the EU. We had British members as well who were incredibly active – from all political parties in the UK, and who were incredibly active and incredibly constructive and made a major contribution. Now, there’s a huge amount of work to be done still, representing ninety-thousand local authorities and regional authorities and approximately one million elected representatives, it’s not something that you can achieve overnight. The institution has been around for twenty-five years, I’ve been here for sixteen, every year has been different. Every year has been different. And every year we have grown in one way or another. So, we continue to improve our ability and our capacity to represent what’s happening on the ground.
And, I mean, one of the biggest things – and it was actually a British MP who said this to me once – sometimes the European Parliament is legislating blindly without really having a sufficiently good knowledge of what the situation is on the ground, how necessary is this legislation, or if it is necessary, if we do know it is necessary, in what way it should be adapted or tweaked, um, and therefore he said that’s where you guys at the Committee of the Regions can really bring to the European level a picture of what the situation is on the ground. Whatever the topic may be, whether it’s biodiversity or integration of migrants, or SMEs, small businesses, culture, education, anything like that – so that is really our task, our task is to bring to the European level a picture of what is happening on the ground so that the decision-makers can, can make more informed decisions and better legislation. And there’s of course always more to do. Always more to do. And one looks back and there’s frustration that we couldn’t have done more, ten years ago, ten years ago, but the task is huge. It is – it is a large democracy. And it’s still under construction. And we are going in the right direction, and I’m always – I’m still very much confident that it is not an impossible task and we are getting there. We’re getting there.
I love that you kind of framed that it is, you know, this huge democracy and it is, it is continually being built. I think that is such a refreshing way to look at something which could be seen as kind of, you know, quite a bureaucratic immovable piece but to almost hear how you talk about it with such passion around it, with kind of actual – the nimbleness in which these things need to be implemented at local levels and the way that there is continual change. As you said, every day is different and is that really what keeps you kind of motivated and what – is it a bigger piece around that that keeps you coming back and making that progress every day towards what is not an impossible task, but keeping you kind of going and pushing forward with that?
Absolutely. You know, when I – I didn’t come to this job expecting I would be here for sixteen years so, you know, up until, up until this point I had never been in a job for longer than four, so I thought well, I assumed that average would continue. When I reached eight years in this job I started to think, surely it’s gonna start to get repetitive, and no. Here I am, another eight years later. And as I say, every year has been different, and it’s just incredibly stimulating, because something that is under construction, as the European Union still is, and the European democracy still is, um, is, it’s constantly changing.
Of course there have been major crises, and everybody knows about the crisis, but few people know about the successes, because for some reason we don’t buy newspapers to read about success, or we don’t go on – we don’t buy newspaper or online subscriptions to read about success, that’s part of human nature for some reason. But there has been tremendous – tremendous developments, and my, my job involves – and not just my job but colleagues in the Committee of the Regions – involves three aspects that really, erm, it’s like I’m wearing three hats, and one day it’s one, one day it’s the other, sometimes it’s all three, and that’s what I find so stimulating about the job. And one is that it’s a contribution to building the union of Europeans. I know that makes some people, especially in Britain, nervous to hear that but you just have to look at why the European Union started; it came out of a terrible war – two terrible wars, and there was a recognition that that should never, ever, ever happen again, and the only way to achieve that was to intertwine these nations in such a way that they could never, and would never want to, fight against each other. So – but furthermore, there is a reality which is that we all have multiple identities and we all, whether we like it or not, whether we recognise it or not, we all have a European dimension to our identity. And the European Union is about giving, erm, or translating that in a real way, and giving those people who do feel in touch with the European dimension of their identity the possibility to experience that, the possibility to develop that, either professionally or personally.
So that’s one – one side of, one dimension of my job, the other part we’ve just touched upon is strengthening European democracy itself. I did my thesis at Birkbeck on democratic disaffection in general, but also how it might manifest itself in the European Union. And that thesis is something – and what I learnt writing that thesis is something that I have used so frequently in my job here in the Committee of the Regions and within the Renew Europe group, developing projects, sharing information, researching it for the members, for the mayors, drafting declarations etcetera. So, and you know, the European democracy it gets criticised, there are flaws in it. But it is a democracy, you know. Citizens vote for their members of the European Parliament and in the UK it’s very similar, you vote for your Prime Minister, you vote for the Member of Parliament, and in the European elections you vote for the Member of the European Parliament, and then the laws are decided by Members of the European Parliament and the national government who have been chosen by their citizens. So those two have democratic legitimacy directly from their voters and they’re the ones who jointly come up with the laws and the decisions. And one huge aspect of this, of course, is ensuring that that whole layer of democracy at the subnational level is adequately represented and that’s where I’m very happy to be contributing to strengthening that side of democracy. And finally, another aspect of my job, which gives this huge diversity to it, is promoting political liberalism. I know people listening may not be in tune or have their own ideas. Liberalism is something that is very misunderstood, it means different things in different countries and in some countries it means very right-wing and in some others it means very left-wing, but broadly speaking, at European level, what it means is the political philosophy that tries to ensure that every individual is able to fulfil their potential. And we defend with equal interest and equal strength on the one hand economic freedom, but always protecting the weakest, and on the other hand we defend individual freedom, so that everyone is free to express themselves however they are. And that’s at the most basic level what political liberalism is and I’m passionate about that, so, those three things I’m all – I’m passionate about all three and I have the good fortune of being able to contribute in some way or another in my job almost on a daily basis to all three.
That’s fantastic. Brilliant. And I mean, we’ve kind of touched on, I mean, what could be kind of, you know, considered the hot topic or the elephant in the room here, we’ve kind of touched on a little bit in terms of the UK and the EU relationships, as the UK has now left the EU, the – how this relationship going forward it’s just kind of starting off and there certainly seems to have been some difficulties to start with. Long-term, how do you kind of see the relationship between the UK and the EU developing?
That’s a very interesting question, and of course because everyone is sort of emersed in the short-term and the day-to-day rollercoaster of this, of this story. I think to look forward, one has to look back a little bit, because I’m of the opinion that most of the people who’ve tried to analyse why Brexit happened have actually missed the point. So, let me take a minute or two just to explain what my understanding or my interpretation, or my – my theory is to why Brexit happened. You see, throughout the twentieth century, the European Union offered solutions to three or four existential challenges that different nation states in Europe were facing. The first one was the threat of invasion. Second one was connecting budding democracies, new democracies that were just getting off the ground and were very weak and very, well, vulnerable. The third existential challenge was for those smaller countries who have a very dominant neighbour. And the fourth was prosperity. Post-war Europe was of course in dire straits, and economic development was a major consideration, a major priority for all these countries.
So, if you look at those four existential problems that different nations in Europe were facing, the EU provided a solution or European integration. Of course it wasn’t always called EU, but European integration provided a solution to some of those – to all of those four challenges.
Now, if you look at the time twenty-eight member states before the UK left, and you analyse each one of these challenges, for every single one of the twenty-eight, except Britain, the EU was providing a solution to two of those. So let me rephrase that. Every single one of those nations was facing at least two of those challenges, and therefore found that the EU was a solution to those existential questions. Except Britain. Britain was only facing one of them, because, if you look at the threat of invasion, Britain was never invaded. Britain, of course, suffered during the war, and Britain of course always wanted peace in Europe, but it’s experience of the war was different to those who had been invaded and suffered tremendously. Protection of a budding democracy – well, Britain is one of the oldest parliamentary democracies in the world, therefore it didn’t need the EU for that, to protect its democracy. Protection of a dominant neighbour – well, it’s not like Finland or the Baltics, who have Russia on their boarders, and when you could argue that Britain is quite dominant in, in its little corner of Europe even though it probably sees eye-to-eye with France and Germany, but it wasn’t really an issue. So you come to prosperity, the fourth challenge, and yes, that was a major concern for Britain, post-war Europe, and even up until recently, Britain has always been interested in the single market. But all the other aspects of the European Union, the political union, were not something that Britain needed. So now you look at the future. So, sorry, just to finish, I think therefore that kind of explains why Britain’s attachment to the European Union was and is much weaker than other countries and is in my opinion the main reason why so many voted to leave – a majority voted to leave.
But now you look at the future, and you say OK. To answer your question, what are the relations going to be like, well, the big existential questions and challenges that nations face now in the world and in the twenty-first century are related to the climate crisis, global finances where you have major players which are bigger than nation states, economic powers, or companies that call the shots. The same happens with big techs and artificial intelligence. Companies which are actually dictating the terms to national governments. You have international terrorism, the rise of authoritarianism, massive flows of migration. All of these are huge challenges, and what you have with the Brexit movement is that leaders of the Brexit movement, they believe that these challenges are best addressed from the nation state level, whereas a majority in the EU believe that these challenges exceed the capacity and strength of any nation state in the EU, and that it’s by coming together and giving and having the political clout and weight of a political union, like the European Union, that these nation states are better protected when faced with these twenty-first century challenges.
So what we have therefore, looking to the future relationship between Britain and the EU, is two models. Two very different models about how to face the twenty-first century. And so the relationship between the two will be driven by those two models, and sometimes the interests between the two will converge, and things will go smoothly, and sometimes they will diverge and then tensions will flare up. But I believe that that, erm, how the relations between the two evolve over time have to be looked at through at through that prism.
Definitely. And we’ve talked before, touched upon the work that the European Committee of Regions has kind of done previously with the UK’s kind of subnational government, and do you think that will continue? Do you think that relationship will continue to exist, change shape a little bit? How would that, on a kind of, on that level make a difference?
I’m very happy to say that the relationship will continue to exist, but of course it will – it will change. For a lot of people in Britain and in Europe are not aware of the role that their mayor or that their local authority or that their regional authority plays at a European level. And the number of projects that go on, exchange of mispractise, joint initiatives, cultural business exchanges, policy proposals, erm, that goes on – and of course that went on between British subnational authorities and counterparts across the whole of the EU. Both sides have very strong interests in maintaining relations. And in fact, we have set up a UK contact group that we call. It’s a working group which brings together representatives of the Scottish, the Welsh, the Northern-Irish, the devolved government, the London assembly, and the local government – their respective local government associations. The idea is to meet at least twice a year. There’s already been two meetings during the transition period last year. There’s already been one meeting this year. There’ll be another one later in the year. And from the British side there’s a great interest in following how things are things are developing for subnational government in the EU because of course for forty years, British subnational government has been implementing EU legislation. A lot of it is still functioning, still operational, still makes a lot of sense.
So, subnational government in the UK wants to know what other good ideas might emerge [laughs] on the other side. And therefore – or just simply be in touch with how legislations and polices are evolving to maybe pick and choose what they like from the EU’s side. Especially the countries that are neighbouring countries to the UK, either with a land boarder or a land connection such as the Eurotunnel, or just along the English Channel and the North Sea. There are lots of coastal areas there that historically, going back centuries, have had strong ties with the UK and they want to keep those ties. So, we will maintain cultural links, scientific and business links, but within the constraints of the new relationship, which will of course not be as free as it has been up until now. And so some things will no longer be possible, others may be possible but in a different way. And that’s what we’re exploring. But in any case the dialogue is there, and will be maintained, and there’s a lot of interest to keep it.
That’s fantastic. And, I mean, as you say, a lot of people – especially a lot of people in the UK like myself included, weren’t really aware of some of this that went on at this kind of subnational level. What would your kind of advice be for people, students, people considering, kind of, thinking more about either working in this space or getting more political active in this space? How do you suggest that they kind of identify and kind of get involved with this in general? Just how would they even start to think about that?
Well, I take it you mean about having involvement in the European Union and not just referring to British citizens?
Yes. Across the border. Yep. Wherever they are.
Wherever they are. Well, that’s a very good question because one of the things that we’re trying to do is develop a network of local councillors in every – the objective is that it should be in every municipality around the EU, of course we may never reach that goal, but we have to start with ambitious goals and then you’ll get as far as possible. But the idea is that in every local council around the EU, one councillor – one member of the council should be designated to be the liaison, the direct liaison with European affairs. In other words, what one of the things that I didn’t mention at the start was that the Committee of the Regions was set up to give a voice to local and regional authorities, but also, also, to bring Europe closer to the citizens and citizens closer to the European Union. Because when you have elected representatives taking decisions on your behalf, and this is the way the media scene is very fragmented in Europe, information that gets to the citizens is very very patchy. So we have experimented over the years in many different ways, and one thing we’re now really developing is this idea of having a local councillor – just one – in every council who is in charge of, on one hand, following what is happening in the European Union and all that might be relevant to his or her village. His or her town. His or her large city. And then has the task of relaying that information to the local community. But it’s a two-way thing. So that person would also know which buttons to press, which numbers to call, in order to express any interests, the ideas, the concerns from their local community. Now, obviously in a way that kind of functions already through the channels – official channels that exist through your MEPs, your members in the Committee of the Regions, through your national government. But of course, we’ve seen through the years that’s not enough. That’s not enough, you know, you really need to extend the possibilities for engagement much wider than the official channels and open up in – unofficial or informal channels that didn’t exist before. So that’s one way of doing.
So how, how does that relate to your question? Well, that means that people who are interested in getting involved in this, they can either go to local politics themselves. And of course, try to become MEPs, but the number of MEPs is very limited. But if they go into local politics, they should realise that actually local politics is not just local it’s also European. And therefore by going into local politics they can become active at the European level as well. Or citizens who want to be part of this can – you know, a lot of people criticise the European Union for not being transparent. Actually, it’s one of the most transparent decision-makers in the world. You just have to go to the website. A lot of people don’t know this but you just go to the website and you will find so much information there. Not all of it in every language, but nowadays the online translators are incredible. The information is there. It’s – there really is no excuse for not knowing what’s being decided on behalf of citizens.
And the other thing I wanted to say that’s related to the UK is that, you know, the geography has not changed. The UK is still at the doorstep of the EU and the EU is still right there next to the UK. So British, young British people, or not just young British people but anyone who are interested, who is interested in relations between the UK and the EU, can get involved and should get involved. Because the more we know of each other, the more that relationship will develop in a positive way, and so, as I say, the geography has not changed.
That’s fantastic. And I – one last question for you, and it’s clearly Birkbeck-related. Probably – you know, you’ve talked about kind of your Birkbeck journey and what’s motivated you and how you’ve gone on from there to utilise your Birkbeck experience, but also just the incredibly varied and diverse work you do on a daily basis. And for you, you know, taking the time to just come back and chat to us now, what do you think it is that makes the Birkbeck community so special?
I absolutely loved every minute that I was a student at Birkbeck. And in some ways, I was said when it ended. But I didn’t have a lot of time to socialise when I was there because I just got engaged just before I started the course, so my first year was spent working, studying at Birkbeck, and planning the wedding. [laughs] A wedding can be almost a full-time job, and, and so, that’s – then my second year of the Master’s, my wife got pregnant, so we were of course very focused on preparing the arrival of our first child. And I was under pressure to make sure to finish the Master’s in time to focus on the family. So I didn’t socialise a huge amount, although I do have very good memories of some of the classmates that I had, and that’s to me whats so special about Birkbeck – is that all of my classmates there, they all had professional experience of some kind. Most of them were still working, like myself, some of them had worked in the past, and that really made the discussions very interesting, because each one was able to bring in their own personal experience, professional experience, and there was a certain, I suppose, maturity there in terms of engaging in the discussions, which perhaps, if you’re just recently out of school, might not be quite the same. Even though I also really enjoyed my first years at university. But I think that’s what – what makes Birkbeck so special is that diversity of life experience, and of course Birkbeck is very international as well. And the whole story, the history of Birkbeck, how Birkbeck started with that famous lecture near Charring Cross, I mean that, I would recommend everyone to read about the history of Birkbeck if you go and study there, or even while you’re studying there, because it’s quite emotional to see the reasons why Birkbeck was started up and how it’s still fulfilling that task and that mission today. And, you know, it really is life and career changing, and it was, for me, my Master’s perhaps didn’t give me the job – it was a very important brick, or very important part of me getting this job – but it certainly has shaped my thinking for the job that I do now. And I think that is what makes Birkbeck so special, of course also the quality of the teaching. I remember Bill Thompson, who is now at the OECD, but he was a senior lecturer in politics, and Dionyssis Dimitrakopoulos, who I’m still in touch with, by the way. The quality of the teaching was fantastic; I loved the library; I loved the central London location. So, there’s so much that makes Birkbeck special, and if anyone is thinking about going there I would thoroughly, thoroughly recommend it.
Thank you so much, it’s such a pleasure to speak to you and personally, really – I found this really interesting to get an insight into an area that I really didn’t know a huge amount about, and to – it’s really piqued my interest. It’s really something that it’s kind of a… I had no concept of some of the complexities, some of the ways in which subnation, local and national governments kind of fit each other specifically in the EU and the work that groups like European Committee of the Regions do, so it’s been really fantastic to get that insight. So thank you so much for taking the time, and, yeah, brilliant, we will keep in touch and speak to you soon.
Thank you very much Helen, it’s been a real pleasure chatting with you. I’m glad that I’ve been able to transmit a little of what I do and a little of the passion that I have for what I do. So thank you very much and good luck with the rest of this wonderful initiative.
That’s the end of the episode. We hope you’ve enjoyed listening to Sean and Helen. If you’re interested in finding out more about OurBirkbeck, please visit campaign.bbk.ac.uk to read more about the impact our community is having around the world. Thanks for listening, and until next time.