2022-2023 Europaeum Scholar Experiences – A Blog by Sašo Gorjanc
Founded in 1992 by the University of Oxford, the Europaeum is an association of eighteen of Europe’s leading universities, including the University of St Andrews which has been an active part of the network since 2017. The network hosts the Europaeum Scholars Programme that supports talented people to make a difference across Europe.
The programme runs alongside a PhD and aims at highly motivated PhD students in the Humanities or Social Sciences. In this blog series about Europaeum scholar experiences, we hear from current PhD students who are engaged in the 2022-2023 programme.
In our second blog, Sašo Gorjanc, PhD candidate at School of Geography and Sustainable Development the University of St. Andrews shares his experience as a Europaeum Scholar.
Experiences as a Europaeum Scholar
I am Sašo, a third year PhD student at School of Geography and Sustainable Development, working on the influence of social constructions among the key actors in EU policy interpretation and implementation on the way those policies are carried out, with a focus on EU marine environmental policy portfolio. Before starting my PhD, I have worked in marine and terrestrial conservation projects and policies in Slovenia, the Mediterranean, as well as Central and South-Eastern Europe. Those work experiences have had a profound impact on what I wanted to research, and my PhD has been designed to address some of the gaps identified during my work and with the intention of opening up possibilities to continue working on the science-policy interface at the level of EU policies in the future.
Therefore, when the opportunity presented itself to apply for the Europaeum Scholars programme, an 18-month policy and leadership course for doctoral candidates from across Europe, interested in making Europe a better place, there was no question whether I would apply. The additional workload associated with participating in the programme and certain trade-offs linked to being consequently unable to attend some conferences, due to them overlapping with the Europaeum modules were prices I was more than willing to pay.
Now being close to halfway through the programme, I can safely say that it is worth participating for a number of reasons.
In my case, I have spent the last 11 years focussing on environmental issues, from my undergraduate degree onwards. The Europaeum Scholars programme is a great opportunity to get out of that box and think and engage with people coming from a variety of different disciplines, including everything from cybersecurity to comparative literature, on all the big challenges facing Europe. Some of those challenges are of course environmental, or ones that we all follow to some extent, such as the war in Ukraine or responses to COVID-19 pandemic. But others are entirely out of my wheelhouse and yet no less important to think about, such as morality of using AI weapons. I am finding this “forcing” of thinking outside the box, hearing perspectives from different disciplines and engagement with a wide variety of topics to be particularly enriching – especially when most of my PhD life focusses on a very tiny topic and it is easy to forget about everything else going on in the world. This is even more pronounced in the group work, which is an essential part of the Programme. It focusses on each group producing a policy proposal that would improve Europe.
The groups are formed by each Scholar submitting a proposal that they want to work on, and Scholars are then put into a group around similar themes . The group then decides what they actually want to pursue. I have quite intentionally proposed something that is not addressing environmental challenges directly, rather relating to improving the legitimacy and implementation of EU policies through better engagement of EU institutions and the public, wanting to explore areas that I think are important, but are out of my expertise. Our group, in the end, settled on the project aiming to improve participative democracy in the EU, by focussing on particularly young people, but in a new way that would a improve engagement between citizens and institutions.
While it might seem that the group work is entirely unmoored from my PhD, I am finding the discussions hugely helpful for my research. EU policies are often, and rightfully, criticised for, suffering from a democratic deficit in their implementation, while also getting the blame for everything that goes wrong. Thinking about how to improve that, how to increase their legitimacy, while also making sure that the lay people recognise the huge and important work that civil servants, researchers, and institutions are doing. This kind of exploration is helping me better position my own work and focus it towards clearer outcomes. Additionally, the modules also already included several sessions (and more are to come in the future modules) that focus on environmental topics – from philosophical takes on imagining better futures, to the role of the European Green Deal, environmental monitoring, and the role of finance in achieving biodiversity goals. This is coupled by institutional visits that have been very illuminating in the ways in which the representatives of the institutions engage with the world (and all the problems therein). So far we have visited the European Parliament, European Commission, the permanent delegation to the EU of Baden Württemberg, and regional government of the Vlaams Brabant province in Belgium. All of these have sharpened my thinking around my research topic.
Overall, though, it is undeniable that my timetable is much busier now with the Europaeum Scholars programme and that there is a considerable additional workload to consider. But, between expanding horizons, institution visits, and group work, being a Europaeum Scholar has been a greatly enriching experience Lastly, I would highly recommend students at the University of St Andrews to try applying to Europaeum in the future!