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Reconfigurations of Centre and Periphery in the European Union: a Discursive Political Study

Final Report Summary - RECONFIGURATIONS (Reconfigurations of Centre and Periphery in the European Union: a Discursive Political Study)

The project ‘Reconfigurations of Centre and Periphery in the European Union: a Discursive Political Study’ investigates the transformation and re-definition of centre and periphery in the European Union (EU) in the aftermath of the financial crisis. It starts from the observation that Eurozone crisis and its management damaged the project of developmental catch-up that provided a specific legitimation to EU integration and expansion since the 1980s. In countries that joined the European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) with the aspiration of ‘catch-up’ and were struck particularly hard by the crisis, movements have risen that question not only the burden-placing of crisis management, but also the current model of European integration.

The project investigates the hypothesis that this particular legitimation crisis of the EU has partially been contained by the discursive-symbolic construction of hierarchies between debtor and creditor states and their constituent societies within the Eurozone. Economic interdependencies may have limited the range of plausible alternatives of crisis management and the conditionality of the EU and International Monetary Fund (IMF) the scope for their democratic negotiation. However, the construction of (creditor )centre and (debtor )periphery in multilevel political communication is likely to have limited the discursive space in which Eurozone crisis management could be imagined and contested.

The first objective of the project was to investigate this hypothesis empirically, combining a discourse analysis of crisis narratives with a review of the governmentality of reformed EU economic governance and a political-economic assessment of the setting of the Eurozone crisis in which these narratives and practices emerged, with a special focus on Greece and Spain (work packages 1, 4, 3). The empirical research was linked up to the second objective to consolidate the research programme of ‘discursive political studies’ developed by the researcher. This programme uses the knowledge- and research-philosophical insights of the linguistic turn to approach problems of politics in different ways, advancing narrative policy analysis, critical discourse analysis, governmentality and hegemony studies as reflexive methodologies and applying them in new methods of computer-aided textual analysis (work package 2). A third objective was to foster an innovative research and teaching perspective in European integration studies (EIS), highly demanded as a result of the crisis, by linking discursive political studies to insights of political economy and by developing tools of ‘critical EU literacy’ suited for teaching in contemporary reflexive societies. The three objectives fed in an overarching integration objective: they meant to enhance the researcher’s prospects for a senior position or full professorship in the German higher education system after a longer period of mobility in the European research area. To this end, the researcher had to combine teaching, research, network, institutional and outreach activities in a way that generated a piece of independent research feeding in a Habilitation thesis or a series of publications and helped to prove ability to teach and supervise in a broad field and run networks at national and international level.

Findings and outcomes of the project
Following these objectives, the researcher produced significant outcomes while receiving EU funding. Her empirical research, co-produced with four research assistants, yielded substantive and original insights into how the management of the Eurozone crisis and the ensuing reform of EU economic governance contributed to the construction of centre and periphery in the European Union. The findings, which will be described in more detail below, show that the one-sided focus on fiscal consolidation and overall stability of the Eurozone has narrowed the prospects of sustainable developmental catch-up for countries that have joined the EU from a position of lower productivity. It reinforced the problematic disposition that their economies and social security systems had developed within the Single Market and limited the range of possibilities for their citizens to participate in the European project. The key insight generated in the project is that these trends of exclusion have been generated in discourse, in the way EU crisis management and institutional reform have been debated and imagined. In contrast to recent studies in EIS, which point to obvious asymmetries in bargaining and economic power, deepened social inequality, or blunt ‘othering’ between creditor and debtor states of the Eurozone, the project highlights the more subtle, but constitutive, trends of exclusion in the practices and discourses of EU economic governance, which are important to consider when addressing future EU reform and its legitimacy (Kutter forthcoming 2018b, 2016b).

The primary discourse analysis of crisis narratives revealed that the discursive space, in which crisis management could be imagined and contested, narrowed in the very beginning and did not broaden even when criticisms and counter narratives arose. The analysis drew on assumptions of narrative policy analysis and scrutinized a corpus of financial commentary published in 2010 and statements given to international audiences by heads of government and state, representatives of EU institutions, the Eurogroup and major oppositional forces in Greece and Spain between 2012 and 2015, when anti-austerity campaigns gained momentum.

The exploration showed that the choice for fiscal consolidation was never uncontested, which had informed EU crisis management and institutional reform from 2010 onwards. But it could draw on the performativity of a powerful narrative of the Eurozone crisis. Foregrounding the ‘Greek case’ of a high structural deficit, this narrative highlighted the loss of financial investors’ confidence in the viability of the Eurozone as most pressing aspect of crisis, identified excessive government spending and flawed EMU design as primary causes and attributed responsibility to governments and constituent societies who supposedly had ‘not done their homework’ or had ‘lived beyond their means’. Other stories that pointed to a derailed financial system, flawed banking, or unitary monetary policy and Germany’s wage restraint were backgrounded. In effect, placing the burden of adjustment on debtor states and centralising EU oversight over fiscal and economic policy appeared as a plausible scenario. The dominant narrative of the Eurozone crisis also run through commentaries of the German financial press that refrained from Greece-bashing and blamed the German government for escalating the crisis by its rejection of quick rescue and debt cut (Kutter 2014a, 2014b, 2014c). Paradoxically, it was even reinforced in some aspects of the alternative storyline that emerged with anti-austerity campaigns and constituted a temporary oppositional discourse coalition including the (then) socialist French president, Syriza and Podemos (Kutter 2016d, Kutter 2017d, 2017e).

However, the more lasting silencing of alternative scenarios that consider catch-up regions seems to be implied in the rationalities and practices of reformed EU economic governance, which were revealed through the lens of governmentality studies. EU financial conditionality exclusively referred to the supervisory instruments and routines of the IMF (Grunert 2015), technical assistance focussed on lean fiscal administration, and the rituals of naming and shaming on the creditors’ austerity targets. Hence, the comprehensive approach to conditionality and technical assistance, which had been adopted during the accession preparations of the 1990s and 2000s to promote EU-conform catch-up, was disregarded and replaced by macroprudential reasoning which subdued debtor states’ adjustment policies to the overall aim of Eurozone stability. The same can be said about the provisions, instruments and statistics introduced with the European Semester: the data and measurements they provide serve to police adjustment to overall stability thresholds, rather than sustainable recovery (Kutter 2016e).

These imaginings of European economic integration are significant in the context of the political-economic setting of countries that joined the EMU with the aspiration of catch-up. Drawing on the literature of varieties of capitalism and peripheral capitalism and socio-economic data, the researcher showed that Greece and Spain were particularly vulnerable to crisis dynamics not only because they had developed unsustainable growth models in the Single Market in response to Germany’s consistent wage restraint and the ECB’s unitary monetary policy. Encouraged by the structural asymmetry of EU integration, which places the emphasis on the market-enhancing removal of national regulation, their governments also had not developed their rudimentary systems of social security and, in consequence, missed decisive automatic stabilisers during crisis. EU financial conditionality and institutional reform not only reinforced this disposition by sanctioning drastic cut backs in wages, social security and public investments, but also left little room for exit strategies other than reloading unsustainable growth models, tourism, and brain-draining migration (Kutter 2014c, 2016a, 2016b).

Along with the findings on the symbolic-discursive, governance-related, and political-economic dimensions of periphery construction, the researcher collected materials for a series of publications which deal with Discursive Political Studies, which use the abovementioned insights for illustration will form part of the Habilitations thesis. Aspects of this work already fed in publications, such as a review of the knowledge- and research-philosophical implications of the linguistic turn and the varying discourse terminologies they brought about (Kutter forthcoming 2017, chapt. 3; Kutter 2014b), on derived analytical strategies and facilitating computer-aided methods (Kutter forthcoming 2018a, 2017d). The researcher also engaged in network and publication projects that discuss the combination of discourse research and political economy (Kutter 2014b; 2016a; 2016b, 2017f; Kutter forthcoming 2018b). In classes given to students, the researcher used the perspective of Discursive Political Studies as a means to elaborate and reflect upon text book knowledge of European integration. She supervised a range of MA theses using this analytical lens (Zyla 2015, Franke 2016, Fritzsche 2017, Bergmann 2017, Günnewig 2017) and developed blended learning tools, which surveyed the students’ own crisis narratives and allowed reviewing them later. Together with student peer tutors, she elaborated modules of self-organised research-based group learning, which now form part of the repertoire of the ‘Center of key competences and research-oriented learning’ at the Host Institute.

Dissemination, impact and target audiences
The researcher’s works have been extensively disseminated to audiences at the Host Institute and at national and international conferences, as the below lists of activities demonstrates. Moreover, in a series of public lectures on ‘crisis and economic governance’ and a public talk on discourses of right-wing populism organised by the researcher, the broader public could learn about established and emerging experts’ work on institutional and symbolic practices that matter for European politics. In addition, reports and updates were distributed through the Host Institute’s platforms and the researcher’s new personal website. These activities will be continued in the course of the next two years, for which the researcher’s contract has been extended, in the frames of the just-founded Viadrina Institute for European Studies, among other things in a working group dealing with European peripheries (Kutter 2016f; 2017b).

The significance and more general impact of the researcher’s work lies in the means it provides for evaluating and reflecting upon practices of EU economic governance. Another added value is in the provision of knowledge techniques needed in information societies, such as knowledge how to deconstruct mediatised public discourse, how to gain alternative perspectives on a subject, and how to organise a learning process that generates reflexive skills, in addition to factual and applied knowledge. The groups benefiting from the researcher’s work are:
• Policy makers and policy advisors who evaluate practices of EU economic governance, including those working at the European Commission;
• practitioners in civic education and political communication who are interested in understanding the dynamics of mediatised public debate and crisis discourse;
• students and scholars of European studies that pursue interdisciplinary approaches to problems of European integration;
• the specialist communities dealing with discourse research, interpretive policy analysis, or interpretive political economy;
• experts in eHumanities looking for the use of computer-aided and data-driven methods in qualitative social research.
Open access material and references to future publications will be provided to the Commission on a regular basis.