The current pandemic is just the last issue in a series, compelling us to think global. Climate change, migration waves, rising inequalities, pollution of the oceans, financial crises, had already tested our ability to look at the big picture overcoming the national borders.
Full awareness is needed about the importance to think global even when acting locally for moving towards more advanced forms of cultural and political responsibility and increased solidarity, up to the task of fairly managing global issues. Such awareness starts from individual behaviour and enlarges to the collective and social dimension: each of our individual choices and actions has a ripple effect well beyond our direct perception.
Yet feeling and acting as global citizens is not subsequent to our rational understanding of its importance. There is all the well-known distance between the mind and the heart: the rationale and the deep-rooted feelings of belonging, anxiety for the future, disbeliefs dictated by fear, social conditioning and realpolitik.
How could we humans learn with the heart and not just with the mind?
This post aims to retrace my personal learning journey and how I came to believe – with mind and heart – that this shift is possible, doable, and not scary at all. A second question, yet to be answered, is how all this learning which took decades of my own life experience can be communicated or even taught.
I have chosen autoetnography “as a research method: it allows the researcher to talk about their personal experiences in order to broaden our understanding of specific phenomena” (Lehtonen and Gatto).
This is quite a challenging choice for a law professor not used to write from a subjective perspective and to expose personal vulnerabilities. Yet, as this journey revealed to myself the power of passion in learning, getting motivation and increasing resilience as a learner and a teacher, I hope this kind of reflexivity could be useful for others as well.
My First Steps: Self – Education and Advocacy.
There are reasons rooted in my personality, my education and my personal experiences which explain a certain inclination towards universalism. I bet they are far deeper and older than my studies and I suppose that listening to John Lennon in my teen years was a symptom more than a cause.
So, if you ask me how I became passionate about this topic which is now the subject of my academic research, I cannot but describe a very personal path, and I perceive all the difficulty of explaining in rational terms something that for me is a deep- rooted feeling.
The most significant cultural influences in my early youth came from humanities and the almost omnivorous taste for reading. I could add a somewhat solitary attitude, the contemplation of nature and the fascination for the New Testament and its message of brotherhood and universal love.
When I attended an Italian public school in Southern Italy, a “liceo classico”, and, later, I followed a traditional law school curriculum, foreign languages and school exchanges were not in the picture. My parents – open-minded, and for sure free thinkers – had not exactly an international mindset, nor were they passionate travelers. Yet, I benefitted from learning how Europe and the whole Mediterranean area came to be a cultural pot-pourri: Still today, Greek and Roman ruins are scattered all around; Middle Age clerics travelled from monastery to monastery and artists from court to court; migratory waves influenced the formation of the languages we know today; similar ideas sprouted all around in different soils as variations on the same theme – from philosophy to architecture to music and figurative arts. A second push came from literature, the Russian, the French and the British ones being my favorites during the school years (later followed by the American one and by occasional discoveries of other cultural climates). It is difficult not being universalists when so many human creations speak to your heart.
But the real turning point came when, only seventeen, I met on my way the Young European Federalists movement, and I was turned into an activist in a blink. The movement I joined had a powerful narrative behind it: it was born during WWII and was imbued with democratic universal values, as equality and fundamental rights, parliamentarism and representative democracy, in opposition to nationalism, xenophobia and discrimination. It was standing against the balance of powers built on weapons, which was under our eyes in the bipolar world of my childhood and promoting the unification of Europe through democratic institutions as a first step to unify the world.
It was an authentic call of the heart: I felt I had found my cause. In a few years and almost without teachers I started to speak in public (and I was, really, shy!), I learned the basics of English and French, and a little about leadership too. All this learning became a curriculum that I built for myself and that for many years flanked my official curricular studies. My heroes were – and still are – Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela. I am pretty sure that, if I were born in the 21st century, Malala and Greta would have inspired me even more, as I would have loved to see young girls challenging the world as they did.
It was, probably, to anchor inside reality such an idealistic personality that I started my law studies. At university I discovered the underrated function of law to unite rather than divide – through shared institutions and participatory mechanisms – as well as the panoply of tools created to negotiate rather than to litigate and how the best negotiation is the one landing to win-win solutions.
Of course, (!) I was fascinated by European and international law. But I do not underestimate the role of the States which have been unifiers, in turn, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when populations were addressing their need for cultural identities, safety, shared rights. I do not deny that States have been the second cradle of democracy, reborn in a different shape after a long winter that had left the seeds of Greek democracy and of the Roman Res Publica buried deep in the earth.
My parallel political path brought me to pay specific attention to all the concepts and tools about democracy. I could easily understand that democracy is not a fetish or a flag to be waved, but a delicate plant to water and fertilize and how deeply different classical Greek democracy, post-revolutionary American and French democracies, contemporary democracy are. I never doubted – neither I do now – that democracy is going to evolve over time just as our own idea of human dignity, being the two so strictly interconnected.
Democratic and in more general terms institutional systems – just like ecosystems – aspire to sustainability, as non-sustainable legal orders collapse. That I got from direct observation. The turn of events I witnessed in the Nineties struck my attention and made me think. I remember well the end of the bipolar world, the collapse of the Soviet Union, then the war in former Yugoslavia – a border State – and even more, the end of the Albanian regime after fifty years of seclusion. Ships overloaded with 27,000 expatriates entered the harbour of my town, Brindisi, in two days, in 1991. These events hit a sensibility used to speculate on borders, democratic values, and ways to improve the world.
Two Paths Destined to Merge.
After my law degree, and not without fierce family opposition, came my academic experience, equally divided between European and international law. The opposition was not to the academic career itself, but to the choice of avoiding national law and so skipping any “normal” career as a lawyer, judge, or public officer. Almost naturally, my research addressed the (then) European Community institutional system and decision-making process. My PhD dissertation was dedicated to the big novelty of the day in the early Nineties: the prospect of European economic and monetary union – with all its governance implications. Other topics which fascinated me later were the soft power of the EU in external relations, European citizenship and almost naturally, the evolving democratic formula of the Union and the possible applications of it in other international organizations.
Moving from there, the curiosity to investigate global economic governance was almost natural. No doubt, my early imprinting was naturally guiding me. International law provided me with a realistic approach, which I very much needed, and the fast-evolving European Law gave me a dynamic perspective and provided a set of democratic tools to be analyzed, which were being experimented above and beyond borders. We had in Europe, since the Fifties, a rich and lively debate on the so-called European democratic deficit, addressed, again and again, revision after revision of the founding treaties. Indeed, it was food for thought. The EU is – almost by definition – a work in progress. As the just launched Conference on the Future of Europe, several of these exercises over the years called me like many other activists to express opinions and get involved.
In the same years, my path brought me to several European institutions as a scholar and a trainee: I saw the States’ perspective from the privileged viewpoint of the Council’s Legal Service and I was in the ECB’ Legal Service in the first year of its very existence when you could still breathe the atmosphere of a construction site. I was, frequently, in and out of the European Parliament – then less influential (and less guarded) than it is now – where I could listen without filters to the Parliamentary Committees’ work and ask questions to EP members. The Europe of 12 of my youth was a bit more homely and, before 9/11, the safety measures were nothing compared to the current ones.
My activist path rested in stand-by for a while before evolving in an advocacy path. I gave up demonstrations and became a quiet scholar, very much for not disconcerting my tutors and master. Or at least, this is what I was thinking. But, looking back at those early years of my academic career I can see that I was channeling my reformist impulse into my studies, so that that underground river surfaced not many years later when, as a young professor, I went to Washington DC – destination IMF and World Bank – with a plan of interviews in my pockets and the determination to understand their governance structure and – among other things – if after monetary unification European Member States were still in their full power as members of the Bretton Woods institution (answer: they were, by the way they still are). Many Executive Board members in the financial institutions were not so difficult to get in touch with as I thought they would have been, and some were even willing to contribute to an academic research. For a strange coincidence, I had started to work on the BW institutions just a few years before the global financial crisis and I was again on top of things.
It was then, in 2009, that with a group of university colleagues, we created “The Group of Lecce”, a think tank offering unsolicited advising to international financial organizations and G20 political leaders. The communiques from the Group of Lecce circulated well beyond our expectations and some national chancelleries replied ceremoniously to our letters addressed to the Heads of State. As a representative of the Group of Lecce, I was invited to join the Bretton Woods Committee and I also started attending the Civil Society Policy Forum organized annually by WB and IMF to convene civil society and have them discuss in their premises the most cutting- edge topics. This was a great occasion to meet activists from all the corners of the world, supporting many different causes, all worthy: developing poor countries; managing of social priorities, like health, education, unemployment; greening finance; stopping climate change, cancelling overwhelming public debt and (yes!) democratizing global governance. I started even supporting the Engage4Climate Network as a pro bono advisor.
Some interesting lessons came from all these DC experiences: (i) in the new internet era, nothing and nobody is really beyond reach; (ii) you never know if you will get a reply until you do not address somebody – be him/her the emperor of the Universe; (iii) an academic “Id” is quite a pass, no matter if your university is not exactly Harvard; (iv) global civil society already exists, in embryo; (v) the dialogue among people coming from different paths may be very fruitful.
Approaching our days, these lessons gave me the necessary confidence to start in 2015 a blog, called “Supranational Democracy”, and later on, in 2018, a series of events called Supranational Democracy Dialogues (SDD), a place where scholars, civil servants and activists could discuss informally such topic, inspiring each other. I was supported by a great team of young scholars and by the students themselves. Another lesson learned: the moment you start to follow your most authentic call, other people will come willingly to share your path. The power of passion in learning and teaching is a well-explored topic, yet, showing your own passion requires openness, confidence vulnerability. As passion emerges inside us and becomes part of who we are, we start wondering how we can recognize it in students and collaborators and encourage them to express it too. The SDD experiment showed me the power of leading by example just allowing my enthusiasm to be seen.
All these experiences influenced my relationship with my sons and my students.
Teaching the Lessons Learned
The first beneficiaries of my experience were my two sons since their early childhood. They learned the “beyond borders” mindset in a much easier and faster way attending an international preschool: they get used very soon to the existence of people from many different cultures, speaking many languages, with lots of different habits. I suppose it was great vaccination against racism and xenophobia as they were spared, at the beginning of their life, fear and distrust towards diversity.
I remember my older son, at three, being questioned by the grandma about the language talked at school. He replied naturally to his anxious nonna that his school was such a great place where everybody could speak the language one preferred. The Italian elementary school appeared (hélas!) a gloom place compared to the liveliness of the preschool melting pot.
Along the years, I shared with my kids the stories and reports of my travels and encounters, accompanied by photos and explanations. I could not hide my embarrassment when my younger son, at eight, wrote in a school essay, that the Paris Convention on Climate was so important that even his mom attended it! Nonetheless, I loved that they could see events on TV around the world and think they were not estranged from them, be it because of a mom’s trip or of the place of origin of some schoolmate. In the same period, we started travelling around, and savoring first-hand the different cultures, museums as much as parks and restaurants.
With my university students the lessons learned surfaced almost as naturally.
My lessons on European institutions were easily enriched with anecdotes and personal experience. Guests come and visit me in my classes both from European institutions as well as from civil society – even more now (online) during the pandemic, at no costs. Students willing to do a research are encouraged to get in touch with relevant actors around the world, as I encourage them to be bold as I have been. Yet, the question in my mind is always the same: How much of my own experience can be transferred, being it a mix of passion, opportunities, and different institutional frameworks’ conditioning?
Of course, students may be encouraged to express themselves (also to contradict the teacher, which is as much useful) and to find their cause. Pursuing a personal motivation, having a big “why”, pushes to study, learn, experiment, and challenge yourself, it made miracles in my life. In times of global issues, sustainability can be the “Big Why”, as it is all about the survival of the human species on the planet.
Vision and narrative feed the emotional side of learning. As far as I have a vision to share and stories to tell – personal experiences as well as historical accounts – it is easier to teach lively lessons as well as empathize with students’ visions and stories.
Just as happened to me in the last ten years I encourage students to do things that make them feel useful. I suppose that making a difference is a very human aspiration. As small as the difference may be – a cleaner corner of the world, a step forward in community building, fighting poverty, raising awareness – anyone gets motivation from things done and goals achieved.
But it was only in 2019, thanks to the Jean Monnet Chair I was awarded on “Legal Theory of European Integration: a Supranational Democracy Model”, that I was officially in charge of designing courses and classes on supranational democracy, which offered me the occasion to develop ad hoc teaching tools and techniques, which, then I had to move on-line because of the COVID 19 safety measures.
But teaching is another (long) chapter of my story and it will the subject for some other post!