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New Research by Prof. Alemanno Underlines Great Divide between E.U. and its Citizens

Law
Published on:

How can the E.U. respond to the growing clamor for more citizen participation in its institutions? In a wide-ranging podcast, the Jean Monnet Professor in EU Law, Alberto Alemanno, proposes a permanent European Citizens Assembly to bring E.U. voters and their representatives closer together. The HEC professor also explores how lobbies can become a force for promoting social change. And he points out structural problems within the E.U. which are stymying the continent’s youth. Finally, Alemanno’s research with fellow academic Elie Sung pinpoints the oft-neglected impact of lobbies on judicial courts by interest groups– which are having devastating effects on societal issues like women’s and LBGTQI+ rights. Extracts.

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Listen to the breakthroughs podcast :

New Research Underlines Great Divide between E.U. and its Citizens

 

In your latest research “Protecting the Future Peoples’ Future,” soon to be published by the European Journal of Risk Regulation, you echo the concerns expressed by European youth that their voice is not being heard. Your research concludes that it's an institutional problem and that our EU structures don't have the tools to make their policies “future proof”. What do you mean by that? 

When you analyze the role that the youth is trying to play in our society, you soon realize that this voice is not being heard. To be more specific, that voice is not channeled. If you look, for instance, at electoral turn out, the segment of the population that is the least politically active is the youth. So, in the recent elections in France, we had the majority of youth not exercising their right to vote. This holds for most European and OECD countries, it’s happening all across the world. This is happening because there's a certain disaffection with the democratic system. 

But more structurally, and I think this is the point that emerged from my research, we can see that our political, economic, and social systems are skewed towards the present middle-aged generation which are more politically active. Our system has what I call a “hindrance bias” against the future generations, who are basically not given a voice. In this system, they simply don't exist, so we don't know who should speak on their behalf.

 

Our political, economic, and social systems are skewed towards the present middle-aged generation which are more politically active.

 

That's the reason why in our research we are focusing more and more on the youth as actors who should be empowered to speak more. We highlight the reforms and proposals they've been advocating, like lowering the voting age in order to make elections more attractive. But they are also slightly more inventive. They suggest giving more votes to parents with several children. So, if you have three kids, you should vote three times simply because the weight of policy decisions is greater. Or there are more sophisticated proposals: imagine that, as citizens get older in life, their weight of vote is reduced, right? And I think this would be a corrective measure to ensure that even if the young tend to vote less, the political incentives for the political class remain high towards future generation. 

Already, we see a lot of institutions emerging around the world. There is one in Wales, the Commissioner for Future Generation. We see parliamentary committees tasked to think about the future generation. The UN Future Summit next year will introduce a commission designed to embed long-term thinking in our policymaking. At the moment, the political cycle, the economic system, they are driven by finance, and are very much guided by short term vision. 
That's where the gains are made, that's the bandwidth they operate in. Both at the individual and collective levels, we tend to build systems that are not integrating future generation interests simply because nobody has incentives to make it happen. Hence the emergence of these institutions. So there's a lot of experimentation and I've been designing some ideas that aim at potentially integrating and embedding those interests in our political and economic institutions. We call them institutions for the future. Perhaps in the next few years, we're going to be seeing a European Commissioner for the future, a European Ombudsman for the future. In other words, there could be a representative of those interests that will remind elected conventional politicians about the importance to project themselves 50 years, 100 years, 300 years from now and to somehow unleash their democratic imagination on how to hold present generation accountable. 

Obviously, climate is the elephant in the room. But climate should not monopolise our conversation about the future. There are so many other issues, ranging from social housing to taxation and any form of inequity existing across races that are so entrenched in our society. But they could be unlocked. If we only broaden up our horizon. You know, our institutions are very, very old and they struggle to change. There's a lot of path dependency: “That's the way we've been doing this. So why should we change?” And there is little accountability in making this change happen. So one might wonder what could actually drive such change. I think that, at the European level, we clearly see a major generational gap between those who are calling the shots, taking decisions, running our economic, political, and social systems, and a new generation that we see here at HEC Paris amongst our new recruits and freshmen coming from all over world. They really pursue and give value to different things in life. But this is a critical space. 

If you take climate, climate is an area where, all of a sudden, governments through the Paris Agreement agree on these ambitious pledges. But, almost 10 years on, we're starting these take stock exercises and we’ll realize that all these pledges remain largely dead letters. There are at best very incremental changes. So, the legitimacy and the acceptance of the youth movement that made and created such awareness is dropping dramatically. A couple years ago, approximately 60% of Europeans were supporting the youth movement. They believed that we had to transition. And now, all of a sudden - possibly largely as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine transforming the economic conditions for many millions in Europe - public support for those policy interventions and the climate youth movement has dropped to 30%. All of a sudden, this question is becoming the major dividing line: should we remain progressive and transform our political, economic and social system? Or should we be more conservative in trying to slow down change, as many political leaders are calling for, like pushing the pause button on the green New Deal, which in principle should have been our new polar star. It provides a reason for Europe to stay together, to cooperate, to enter into this ecological transition that not only has to happen, but has to happen in a very fair and just way. 

And that's exactly the point I make in my research: we all remember the yellow vest movement in this country. Its major raison d’être was to push back against policies that were allocating in a very unfair way the cost of the ecological transition. But I don't think we have made major progress on this issue. And the yellow vest movement could evolve and take on other shapes, but for the same reasons: people are dissatisfied with the inability of governments to respond to the citizens’ day-to-day demands. They remain between a rock and a hard place. 

You are a prolific writer, with several dozen articles and 10 books published in the past 20 years. One characteristic throughout seems to be a healthy frankness in your approach, often revealing, well, that the King is naked... And that includes self-criticism. For example, you admit there’s a “disconnect” between your research and the small number of people from the wider public who’ve read your papers since you began publishing in 2008.

Well, I think that that diagnosis still holds today. I don't think there are many more people reading my academic papers. The gap existing between academic research and reality remains very significant and we really struggle to bridge this gap today. But we are trying hard, we are doing things like translating our research into non-specialist language, as we are doing today, for a broader public. We are trying to beautify our engagement with society. We're trying to create a form of contribution which goes beyond the ivory tower. At the same time, you know, this behavior is not necessarily what is expected from academics. We're not trained to talk to journalists. We're still not trained to translate our research to policymakers. So, we are in this kind of ambivalent situation in which we are expected to do a bit more than writing papers, but the incentive system does not necessarily reflect this notion. So, at the end of the day, we are still under-utilized and not necessarily channeling this potential to transform society through knowledge in the way in which I would like to. 

You’ve co-authored another paper which is also soon to be published. It's called “The Lobbying for Good Movement”, coming out soon in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. In this study you've turned to a positive form of lobbying, a new movement, which shows that lobbying is an essential part of social change. What mechanics did you use for this research, Alberto? 

Well, the mechanics of research are always non-linear, meaning they are made of encounters and then analysis, which is a very lonely stage. There was also a lot of applied research and I think that's something I've been trying to expand on with the support of HEC Foundation. I had the chance to craft, design and test some ideas on a variety of actors on NGOs, nonprofits, while also collaborating with some enlightened progressive companies. The latter feel uncomfortable with having too much power in the system and therefore are exercising self-restraint.

 

We realized that the major and most promising actor in triggering this change is represented by the investors, who are allocating capital and calling the shots.

 

That might sound like a very naive idea, thinking that a company is going to exercise self-restraint, but it is happening. And we realized that the major and most promising actor in triggering this change is represented by the investors, who are allocating capital and calling the shots. They are the ones deciding whether the systems should change or not, and, if so, to what extent. Because, by allocating capitals towards one industry versus another, or walking away from fossil fuel towards renewables, or checking whether the companies they invest in have a diversity program, they are transforming the entire societal system. This is called the “good lobby tracker”. It’s a navigator that allows investors, companies and think tanks to position themselves in relation to power structure and to self-assess their own governance and activity in those spaces. In other words, the tracker allows them to diagnose how good they are in terms of best practices in engaging and in exercising their political power.

 

The "good lobby tracker" allows investors, companies and think tanks to diagnose how good they are in terms of best practices in engaging and in exercising their political power.

 

We have been scrutinizing over 30 initiatives, ranging from Moody’s ESG providers to Refinitiv, MCSI, World Benchmarking Alliance, B labs - all with initiatives that are somehow trying to push and move the needle in that space. By creating new norms of reporting for company, they now are becoming mandatory. So, the idea is that the good lobby movement will emerge to basically disclose more, not only about their emission standards (scope one scope two, scope three) like what’s happening in Europe and now in California in many jurisdiction; but also to disclose their track record when it comes to their supply chain: do they buy products or materials in a supply chain where fair wages were not paid, where human rights were abused and child labor was involved?

And now we're moving to the next level. After the environmental and the social, we're moving into the political. We’re asking companies to disclose if they are taking a stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Are they still operating in Russia? Over the last few months, we’ve noted an unprecedented amount of public pressure on those companies to walk out of Russia. Because not taking a stance meant implicitly to take a stance and to be somehow an accomplice to the Putin regime which is killing individuals, not only in Ukraine but in many other parts of his own territory, and which is leading the entire geopolitical balance to change. So, you see, there are many other implications that transcend our region. 

In mid-September, you and HEC Assistant Professor in strategy, Elie Sung, invited the academics from around the world to discuss how interest groups lobby the courts in judicial systems. The conference featured a multidisciplinary approach with a focus on researchers who are exploring lobbying regulation in law and non-market strategy and business studies. There were also representatives from interest groups in political. science. Why was this aspect so important to discuss between researchers? 

I think access to power is basically the dominant theme in my research. Elie Sung and myself had this serendipitous encounter a few years ago and we both realized that we are both focusing on something that has been historically neglected: how do interest groups try to influence not only the Parliament, not only the government, but also courts? Judges are also object of lobbying, of influence, of participation. And this raises a very difficult political theory question: should courts become participatory should they be open to external input - because they have been designed to be insulated from outside scrutiny? It seems you need to become a party to a case in order to engage with a court.

Once again, we’ve seen the same special interest groups have been hijacking access to courts. That’s because this access is subordinate to the satisfaction of a lot of epistemic complexity. You need a good lawyer, you need to tick a lot of boxes, and this is not something that every citizen can afford. In the course of our research these last years, we came to the realization that courts might have become major locus for power influence. That has major repercussions not only on litigation cases but also on policymaking. To the point that, if you look at the other side of the Atlantic, there are major cases - reproductive rights, for example - that are decided by the courts. They're not decided by the legislature and are the results of approximately 30 years of legal strategy. It does not simply consist in pushing the courts to take a stance on the Fourteenth Amendment, but rather to create an entire legal doctrine. That entails the training, the publication of academic articles that, in a very subtle way, shape the old ideational and informational space for judges to grow. 

In other words. This has been a long-term investment made by a particular group of people, not progressive but very conservative, socially conservative. In our workshop we had the chance to have people from over 10 countries, all studying, researching, reporting how this is happening in a very subtle way. They suggest that the repertoire of tools available to interest groups might be even more sophisticated and even more inaccessible, and this has huge social and economic implications. In other words, this is a very, very nasty type of lobbying that is completely hidden from the public eye. Few people are aware of this phenomenon, so we wanted to break the taboo. We spent two days discussing all the intricacies around how to conceptualize this form of judicial lobbying. And how to identify the different forms, manifestations, expressions that are emerging today, but that still remain under the radar.
 

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