Whether discussing the sixty years of Europe, or the successive centuries of political shifts which have marked his native city of Naples, one thing is clear: EUI Secretary General Vincenzo Grassi has a keen sense of history and the larger forces that have united—or divided—people across the European landscape.
Grassi, who comes to the EUI after having spent a significant part of his career working on European affairs for the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is pleased to put his experience to work in the context of a research institution such as the EUI. ‘The EUI is a very prestigious institution,’ he says, ‘and the work it does is increasingly important, given the anxious times we live in, with regard to European integration.’
‘In this particular moment dissatisfaction is growing among citizens, who feel that their expectations are not being represented by their politicians, who in turn are perceived of as members of an élite. That makes Europe an easy target […] When a nation, or an institution, has been around for centuries people don’t question its existence. But Europe, at 60, is still recent.’
The EUI, at 40, is even younger. And indeed, the fact that young institutions are always open to discussion is a challenge for the Institute. ‘‘From the moment of its creation until now, everything has changed, and it will continue to change. We have to react to that […] We have to show that we are here because we do useful things for the member states. We have to show that people from here contribute—either academically or to public service—and that the public investment is worthwhile.’
This challenge is one the new Secretary General feels the Institute has lived up to admirably over the years, and he thinks that its current research objectives, as well as new ones on the agenda, have demonstrated its relevance both to internal and external stakeholders.
‘The EUI is very well-equipped,’ he remarks. ‘Our academics enjoy intellectual freedom to study, but much of the work here has a strong application.’ Noting the speed of the spread of information, and the constant barrage of news feeds, he emphasizes the value of a place where ‘the aim is to study and think, to learn from the past, and to develop the capacity to see things in a broader perspective.’
While praising the timeliness and relevance of many of the projects which already exist in the departments and at the Robert Schuman Centre, such as, among others, those concerned with regulation and migration—Mr Grassi also expressed his enthusiasm for the EUI’s recently announced School of European and Transnational Governance. Now in its planning phases, the school aims to be ‘both European and trans-national.’ For Grassi, it also represents a new way for the EUI to contribute to both academic and policy thinking, and to ‘provide elements for reflection for concrete political action’.
When asked specifically about how he sees his role as Secretary General, Grassi was clear: ‘I have experience with the European political project, with shaping policy’, he explains. ‘The new element here is the close relationship with academics. My role is to ensure that the academic work done here is carried out under the best possible conditions.’
The recently arrived official will also prioritise the communication of academic work. ‘The EUI has a very good reputation,’ he remarks, ‘but still in a rather limited context. Members of the European Parliament, of national parliaments and political parties, for example, don’t necessarily know what we are doing. We can do more to reach out to these audiences, as well as to those beyond Europe.’
Grassi also expresses a desire to reach out to our alumni, and notes that the investment in the researchers and academic work here at the EUI is an investment in the long-term future for citizens far beyond the Institute. ‘We could have alumni in leadership positions in Europe, in national governments,’ he says. ‘It is a source of inspiration to think that what we do here and now could have an effect in 20 or 25 years.’