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Interview: Thomas Risse on his main research areas, published by Observatório de Regionalismo

Thomas Risse and Clarissa Ribeiro, Image Credit: Observatório de Regionalismo

Thomas Risse and Clarissa Ribeiro, Image Credit: Observatório de Regionalismo

Please follow this link to get access to the podcast (in English). In case you would like to read the interview instead, here it is:

News from Dec 07, 2017

"This week, the Observatório de Regionalismo shares an interview with professor dr. Thomas Risse, professor of Political Science at the Freie Universität Berlin, director of the research group “The Kolleg-Forschergruppe (KFG)” The Transformative Power of Europe” and coordinator of the Collaborative Research Center (SFB) 700 “Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood”. At the time, the professor commented on four topics of his researches: comparative regionalism, global governance, identity and regionalism, and diffusion of regionalisms and norms. This interview is a must, it is available as a podcast, in English, and transcribed here in English and Portuguese. We thank Professor Risse for the opportunity, do not hesitate to check it out!

Interview by Clarissa Ribeiro. Our translation, edited transcript for clarity.

Clarissa Ribeiro (C.R.): The Observatório de Regionalismo thanks Professor Risse so much for your interview and for this interview we would like to talk about four main topics that are from your researches: first one being Comparative Regionalism, then Global Governance, Identity and Regionalism and the Diffusion of Regionalism and norms. So, recently, you and professor Tanja Börzel have published a book, “The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Regionalism”. What is the importance of rising up this debate?

Thomas Risse (T.R.): I think the main issue is to really engage into Comparative Regionalism. There’s a lot of studies, or have been a lot of studies, looking at different regions so you have these people in the huge community studying the European Union and thinking the European Union is the only thing that there is and all the rest is irrelevant. Then you have a community of africanners looking at looking at african regions and so on. So we thought what we should do is really force our authors to look across regions. We still have chapters on the various continents but in that Handbook that you mentioned the main emphasis is really comparing across regions because you can learn a lot about what explains what are the main drivers for regionalism at the emergence of regional organizations, you know? What are actually their effects? Do they have any effects? Is it just talk? And so far. And you can only come up with some explanatory factors if you compare and that’s the beauty of comparative regionalism. In a way it’s Social Sciences 101, because Social Sciences is all about comparisons.

C.R.: About global governance: What roles do the regions play right now in our system to achieving global governance?

T.R.: First of all most Regional organizations are Regional governance organizations. They engage in various issue areas, be it Security, be it economic governance, be it climate, environmental governance, human rights governance… I mean, in the human rights area we have all kinds of human human rights regimes and sometimes this works as a kind of implementation of larger Global regimes. So in the human rights area that is definitely the case. You have global human rights regimes and then you have, particularly in the Americas and in Europe, a very strong regional human rights regime that kind of implements these global norms into the regional context and therefore can also be way more context specific. But there are also cases, on the opposite, where Regional organizations work at cross purposes with Global governance. There is an ongoing debate on whether regional economic organizations actually divert trade or foster trade. Or whether they’re compliant with the World Trade Organization rules, etcetera, so that’s an ongoing debate. The most of the evidence suggests that it’s a began complementary. Just because you have a very strongsingle market in Europe doesn’t mean that Europe doesn’t trade with the rest of the world. So there’s very little evidence for trade diversion but it’s an ongoing debate. In some cases it promotes global governance regimes and in other cases, it works against it.

C.R.: In your point of view how this identity issues influence the development of regionalism?

T.R.: That’s actually a very complicated question because one cannot say that strong regional identities translates immediately into regional institutions. Many regional organizations are based on what is called “open ended contracts”. Think about the European Union it’s an open ended contract. States came together – the Rome treaty and etcetera -but it’s not finished. It’s evolving, it’s always evolving. (…) My point would be: if you do not have some sense of regional community – and this is identity – this open endedness is not workable because you cannot trust your partners that actually this is open ended in the future. So, for that you need some sort of community spirit. We’re not talking very strong identifications with the region’s and by the way people have different multiple identities. You know, you can be Brazilian. You can be vetted to São Paulo you are “paulista” and you can have an identification with west… I don’t know about a Latin American identity that’s a different story – I think it’s pretty weak – but you can also if identify with your with your region. And the data that we have for Europe show that even people that only have sort of a minimum attachment to Europe are strongly supporting European integration, way more so than people who only identify with their own nations. So we do not need identities “die for Europe” in order to have regional integration going. That’s the one issue: we have quite some some good evidence that citizen identities have something to do with the ability of political elites to really foster regional integration. And the second point is – and that’s just an observation and we do not really know what effect it has – In almost every case of region building, the political elites make this sustained effort at creating the regional identity. You have they come up with a flag for the regional organization and symbolism. In Africa they talk about the African way and that is community building. In ASEAN they’ve set the Asean way they’ve distanced that from Europe and so forth. So elites, when they when they engage in region building they almost inevitably talk “identity talk”. And it’s not just about economic interests. It’s almost always about that identity talk. Unfortunately we do not know what the effects of this are because particularly in data or studies of Europe – where we have the best data available – it’s very hard to show that the European integration, the process itself has had any effects on popular identification. It’s very hard to show and at the moment I would bet that the way is more from identity to regional integration than the other way around. It might be a kind of a virtuous circle with a feedback effect. But the the effect from regional identities or identification with the region, to regional building is probably stronger than the other way around.

C.R.: And our last question is about diffusion. You have done so much work on diffusion and some really important work to the field. We would like to know what are the main points of this agenda right now? You were talking in the last question about the Asean way, the African way, how can we perceive diffusion on regional organizations and on regionalism?

T.R.: Okay. Let me back off a bit. Most of our theoretical understandings of region building, or regionalism, or regional theories of integration, assume that States or political elites in the region have a certain functional problem – economic security or whatever – and then they look for a functional solution to that. And they don’t look around what other regions have. And the diffusion argument is simple: in fact they do look around. You learn from other regions and sometimes you reject something from other regions wich will also be a diffusion effect, to make a conscious choice not to follow the European way, for example. In the Asian example that has been done for quite a while.  (…) I’m not saying that the regions are dummies that just download some software, and the European model spreads across the world that’s probably nonsense. But regions do learn from each other. They also learn from experiences within a region. I mean we have in Latin America Unasur, Mercosur, ALBA, CELAC, you have tons of (institutions). We call it the the Latin American alphabet soup of regions, overlapping regionalism, etcetera and I’d say the chances are that particularly institutional designs have been copied between these various organizations. So it’s about interdependent decision making: the choices of somebody before, affects what you are doing.

C.R.: Thank you so much once again professor Risse, our research group thanks you…

T.R.: Thank you, it was a pleasure!

C.R.: Thank you!"

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