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Pirmin Rengers

How Brexit is bringing policymakers and researchers closer together

Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker will retire on 8 February. If there’s one theme running through his career, it’s the links between the University and society. In this series of pre-retirement discussions, Stolker will talk one last time to people from within and without the University. This time he speaks to two Brexit experts: researcher Joris Larik and head of the Netherlands Brexit Taskforce Jochem Wiers.

‘It was a fantastic time for me as a researcher: I spent five months in a kind of broom cupboard and could devote myself to the topic.’ Speaking is Joris Larik, a researcher in European and international law at Leiden University College. He is describing a Fullbright-Schuman fellowship that enabled him to conduct research at the School of Advance International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC. ‘I was looking at the trans-Atlantic consequences of Brexit.’ Brexit is now the main focus of his research.

Portraits in MS Teams of Carel Stolker (top) talking to Joris Larik (bottom left) and Jochem Wiers (bottom right).
Carel Stolker (top) talking about Brexit to Joris Larik (bottom left) and Jochem Wiers (bottom right).

Brexit as a focus

Brexit is also the main focus of the person he is talking to: Jochem Wiers, head of the Netherlands Brexit Taskforce since November 2016. This taskforce not only worked with all the ministries to collect input for the EU negotiation team and to determine the practical implications of the agreements with the British, but also ensured that the implementation bodies such as the Customs Administration, Marechaussee and the National Food and Goods Authority were ready for the new relationship with the UK. ‘That was an enormous task, and will remain so for a while because our work is definitely not done now the agreement has taken effect.’ Brexit is a topic that has been close to Rector Carel Stolker’s heart in the last years of his rectorate. He is a fierce supporter of international student exchanges and collaboration between researchers, and was worried that Brexit would prevent or complicate these. And rightly so: it has recently transpired that the deal meant a British withdrawal from the Erasmus exchange programme.

Broaden perspective

Although Larik and Wiers are both Brexit experts, they haven’t had much contact or shared much information with each other, which surprises Stolker. ‘So as a policymaker and researcher you can both be delving deeply into the very same subject, but not automatically come into contact with each other, when I can imagine you would both benefit from the other’s knowledge.’ 

‘Definitely,’ Wiers agrees. ‘As policymakers we tend to think and work in processes. That gives you some structure and is how things work out there. But it definitely narrows your perspective. Collaboration with academics or even just a chat with an academic can help you take a step back and get more of an overview or broaden your perspective – or even find a different one.’

Picture of a researcher in a kind of broom cupboard.
Joris Larik spent five months researching Brexit in ‘a kind of broom cupboard’. How can the knowledge he acquires end up with Jochem Wiers’s Brexit Taskforce?

Share findings quickly

So policymakers would definitely welcome the knowledge of researchers like Larik. ‘But how do we ensure’, Stolker asks Larik, ‘that the knowledge you acquired in that broom cupboard in Washington ends up with Jochem and his team?’ 

Larik laughs: ‘Policymakers that I interviewed in Washington for my research often asked me to share my findings. You generally report about your research in a journal article. But if I only return to them years later because only then has the article made it through the peer review, that’s not much use to them. So you have to look for other ways to share your research.’

Importance of blogging and tweeting

There are various ways for researchers to do this, says Larik. ‘You can first publish an article as a working paper, so it’s available sooner. Or you can write a blog about what you have found.’ The advantage of the latter is that you can also write in a more accessible way, and reach a wider audience. 

Wiers says this is definitely one way he and his team keep abreast of things. He already follows a number of blogs by thinktanks and specific newsletters about Brexit. ‘And I often chance upon a blog on Twitter, and via that blog the original research paper.’ Wiers thinks Twitter is a good way to tell peers that you’re not in direct contact with about your work. 

‘Or you can choose a direct approach and send a short summary with a link by mail to people who might be interested,’ says Larik. ‘That’s actually how Jochem and I first came into contact with each other.’

Impact versus career

‘To be notified about a potentially interesting paper would be fantastic for me,’ says Wiers. ‘Although I do understand that this means more work for academics.’ 

Larik replies, ‘As a researcher you’re trained with the idea that you have to publish in renowned international journals. But I realised that then my work would only be read by a few of my peers. So over the past few years I’ve been actively communicating about my work in other ways too. Like blogs but also by appearing in the media. That does take time, it’s true.’ 

It strikes Stolker that there is something of a contradiction here: ‘For your academic career the international journals are most important. But for your work to have most impact on society, other platforms and media are more important. For you as an academic, are career and impact too disparate?’ 

‘At times,’ Larik replies. ‘But you can’t just choose to neglect one. And if you can see the value because your research ends up with the people who can actually use it in their work, then it isn’t that much extra work for you at all.’

Picture of the UK on the left and the EU on the right, with two people trying to swim the English Channel.
Brexit is a good example of how the practice is relevant to legal theory and vice versa.

Brexit will continue to generate academic questions

And vice versa: can Jochem and his team be of any help to Larik? ‘Definitely,’ he says. ‘Particularly with Brexit. The deal that has now been reached is full of new legal agreements, procedures, exceptions and so on. How are these going to play out? And what will the trade deal between the EU and the UK mean for other trade deals in the world?’ 

Wiers adds: ‘I expect disagreements to arise from the deal, which in turn will generate questions relating to global governance.’

All the questions that this brings forth will keep academics busy for years, say Wiers and Larik. Says Larik: ‘Brexit is a good example of how the practice is relevant to legal theory and vice versa.’

Text: Marieke Epping
Illustrations: Pirmin Renger

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