Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Michael Drolet, IES Abroad London

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IES Abroad
June 23, 2016

Dr. Michael Drolet has been a faculty member at IES Abroad London since 1997. He received his B.A. in Political Science and his M.A. in Political Philosophy from the University of Ottawa. Dr. Drolet was also a Commonwealth scholar and obtained his Ph.D. in Political Theory from the University of Kent at Canterbury. Dr. Drolet has taught at both his alma maters, as well Queen's University of Belfast; University College London; The London School of Economics and Political Science; Royal Holloway, University of London; and The University of Oxford. He is well-published in the realms of French political thought, including Tocqueville and Postmodernism, is an experienced book reviewer, and is fluent in both English and French. Drolet is currently writing an intellectual biography of one of the 19th century’s leading advocates of European unity, Michel Chevalier (1806-1879).  

IES Abroad: What course can IES Abroad students take with you in London?

MD: I teach a course within the discipline of Political Science, PO 325: An Introduction To European Integration: History, Institutions, And Policies. Divided into three parts, the course provides students with a thorough understanding of European integration from the post-war period to the present.

IES Abroad: Your course is especially relevant as the UK will be deciding whether to stay in the EU or leave today. What is your general perspective on the EU referendum?

MD: It is perhaps curious that I should begin answering this question by saying that I don’t wish to dwell on it overly. I am both fascinated and depressed by the content and the tone of this debate. The first thing that I would say about the debate is how toxic it is. The level of invective and rhetoric is astonishing. And this has been allowed to come about and develop precisely because there is a woeful lack of knowledge about the history of the EU and its institutions.

The UK political class and the UK media have a great deal to answer for. They have singularly failed over decades to fulfil their democratic function in educating and informing the electorate about the EU and its institutions. In the weeks running up to this referendum, I have watched and listened to a number of serious documentaries on television and radio, and been surprised—and stunned—by the number of basic mistakes commentators make and distortions some willfully convey. This failure on the part of our media to inform the electorate has contributed to a great deal of cynicism about the EU and has fueled an intemperate campaign. And whilst I would be the first to acknowledge that there is a great deal that is wrong with the EU, I think abandoning this great achievement would be a disaster for the UK.

What is also concerning to me is how this referendum has highlighted a longstanding crisis of our democracies. It is clear that the elite form of democracy that has dominated UK and European politics since the end of the War is failing. Our political elites are totally remote from their citizens. Their life-experiences are, in all too many cases, radically different from those over whom they govern. And this disjuncture has been allowed to develop over decades, with politicians failing to listen, failing to educate, and failing to be educated. The remoteness of our elites has fueled populism, chauvinism, and radical politics. In the case of Greece and Spain, but also of Italy, this has resulted in electorates gravitating away from the established political parties and toward more radical parties. The same is true in countries such as Hungary and Poland where we have seen the rise of right-wing populism and narrow nationalism. The UK referendum has also resulted in a kind of narrow chauvinistic populism. I worry a great deal about the consequences of that.

Despite my anxieties, I am fascinated by how the referendum underscores a deep phenomenon that has preoccupied political and social thinkers since the beginning of the 20th century, first in the work of the German historian and sociologist, Max Weber, later in the work of the German philosopher Hannah Arendt, and today in the writings of political theorists such as Pierre Rosanvallon and Marcel Gauchet. This is the clash of the conflicting imperatives of economics and politics.

The imperatives of economics have driven an increasing bureaucratisation of national governments and of the EU. But this has resulted in the political—the place of discussion, contestation, and debate over how we can achieve the Common Good, with all the moral and ethical dimensions this comprises—being gradually colonized by the economic and its logic of continual economic growth. The result is that as the economic displaces the political, politics appears less and less responsive to people’s lived experience and to the moral and ethical considerations that underpin their lives. Populism and radical politics are logical, historically established, and deeply worrying responses to that. 

IES Abroad: What makes understanding the history of European integration particularly important in 2016?

MD: A more thorough understanding of the history and dynamics of European integration would help both citizens and their political leaders to understand that when European states have retreated into their narrow national frontiers when facing the great historic economic, social, and political challenges, this has yielded only one result: disaster. Europe experienced two calamitous wars and a Cold War in the last century. The creation of, what is today, the European Union was a direct response to those wars. On that basis alone, the European Union has achieved a historic legacy. It has fostered an environment of co-operation and peace in Europe for more than half a century. And it is that spirit of co-operation, mutual support, and solidarity that Europe needs more than ever, for it faces so many pressing challenges today.

We have the continuing legacy of 2008 financial crisis, with its dispossessed youth, declining living standards and fragile and vulnerable labour markets. There is the threat of Islamic terrorism, as the disasters in France and Belgium have made all too clear. There is the threat of cyber-terrorism: the shutting down of almost the whole of the Ukrainian electricity grid was a chilling example of that. There is a hostile Russia with territorial ambitions. And there is the humanitarian catastrophe of the refugee crisis, which Europe’s leaders have woefully and willfully failed to tackle with the seriousness, sensitivity, and humanity it requires. To meet these challenges, Europe requires a form of leadership based in collective solidarity, and this is terrifically hard to foster now. But it is my firm belief that with a greater and deeper knowledge of the history of European integration, of its failures and successes, we can foster that collective solidarity so desperately needed now.

IES Abroad: What makes London, England, such a great place to study Political Science?

MD: London is a fantastic city to study politics. With a population of more than 8.5 million people, London is Europe’s largest city and the sixth wealthiest place on the planet; its economy dwarfs that of Saudi Arabia’s. Almost 40% of London’s population was born outside of the UK, which makes London a truly global and cosmopolitan city.

London offers immense opportunities for inter-cultural connections because of its size, economic power, and demography. It is a fascinating and dynamic multi-cultural environment, which offers numerous possibilities for multicultural politics. But London’s diversity is not without costs. Accommodating diverse communities can be difficult, and this presents significant challenges to social activists and policy makers.

London also presents other challenges. These include pressures on the environment, transportation, housing, employment, education, healthcare, and income distribution. I should point out that these pressures are not isolated to London alone, and they frequently require a national policy response. As London is the world’s pre-eminent financial centre, what happens in its financial district—the City of London—has huge economic, political, social, and legal ramifications for the wider UK and EU economies. This in itself generates very diverse policy responses, with London serving as the location for scores of think tanks covering the full ideological spectrum, from the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute, on the right, to the Fabian Society and the Institute of Public Policy Research, on the left.

All of these challenges, and independent responses, obviously preoccupy the minds of the country’s legislators. And London is, of course, the location for the UK’s Houses of Parliament. This makes London incredibly interesting for anyone studying politics, whether it’s UK politics or politics of the European Union. What legislators decide at Westminster has enormous implications for the national polity, for the UK’s role in Europe, and for its place in the world. Britain’s historic ties to the USA mean that it is a close ally of the United States in international diplomacy and war. This close alliance is a critical entry-point into UK and EU politics for many American students wishing to study abroad in the UK. As a student of politics myself, I believe London offers amazing opportunities for study and political engagement. It’s one of the most fantastic places to study and do politics in the world.

IES Abroad: After almost 20 years teaching at IES Abroad London, what has been the most interesting question you’ve received from an IES Abroad student? What was your response?

MD: I’ve been asked so many interesting questions from IES Abroad students. They are so engaged and curious, wanting to find answers to so many questions, that it is very difficult for me to pin down one question. In the 1990s I had fascinating questions about Britain’s place in the EU, about Europe’s role in the Gulf War, the EU’s response to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and whether Britain would join the Euro. In the 2000s, students asked amazing questions about what the failure of the 2004 Constitutional Treaty meant for the future of the EU, or what the financial crisis meant for Europe. In recent years, students have asked brilliant questions about whether Greece would default on its debts and remain part of the Eurozone. 

But in the 20 years I have taught at IES Abroad, one question always comes up: Why do I teach Americans? My answer is always the same. I love teaching American students. Perhaps it’s because most IES Abroad students find themselves in the UK and Europe for the first time and this lends their studies a certain excitement, but what I find is that IES Abroad students approach their courses with real enthusiasm and curiosity. They are always quick to ask all kinds of questions and to offer interesting and shrewd observations. They bring to class a genuine excitement for learning, one fueled by a desire to find answers to their questions. They are driven by a desire to know.

IES Abroad: What advice would you give a student preparing to study abroad in London?

MD: The first thing I would say is: “be prepared for an amazing experience.” The U.S. and UK’s shared language is deceptive for it implies a shared culture, but this is far from the case. The UK and London are in important, subtle, and not so subtle, ways very different from the U.S.A. This can be very disorientating for students coming to the UK for the first time. But if students are prepared to be open to new ways of looking at the world and engaging with it, they will find their time in London an incredible and thoroughly life-enhancing experience.

The second thing I would advise a student preparing to study abroad in London is to read as much British and European history as possible before leaving the United States. Robert Tombs’ The English and their History is a stunningly good read. I would also advise students to immerse themselves as best they can in UK and European culture. Films, plays, novels, art are brilliant ways to “get the feel” for a place, just as getting “plugged in” to UK and European news offers a real sense of what matters to people here. There are many online versions of UK and European newspapers, such as The Guardian or Der Spiegel, and the BBC World Service offers a brilliant programme called World Update: Daily Commute, which specifically caters to the American market.

The last thing I would say to a student preparing to study abroad in London is: “Be open to different cultures. Immerse yourself in London. Travel to its different neighbourhoods. Explore the city on foot or bike, and take short trips to other cities in the UK. When travelling to continental Europe, do not race from one city to the next. Visit one or two cities and absorb what they have to offer—their architecture, history, culture, and politics—for each is a truly amazing place.”

IES Abroad: What has been your proudest teaching moment or career achievement?

MD: I can’t really answer this question by distilling it down to one moment or single achievement. I feel a genuine sense of pride and achievement by having been granted the opportunity to teach. I feel so privileged to engage with such clever, engaging, curious, and committed young people. Their enthusiasm for learning and engagement with it – and life – is infectious. To be able to help them, in the modest way that I can, on their intellectual and life journeys is, for me, the greatest of privileges. 

Study abroad in London and take Dr. Drolet’s Political Science course!


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