Rebuilding trust in experts after Brexit

Written by Henry Goodwin on . Posted in Current features, Current profiles, Features, Profiles

In the weeks leading up to Britain’s referendum on whether to leave the European Union, Michael Gove – a Conservative MP who, at the time, was justice secretary and a chief cheerleader of the Leave campaign – infamously declared that the British people had ‘had enough of experts’.

Gove was responding to high-level interventions in the Brexit debate, ranging from the IMF to Barack Obama, which warned of the damage that leaving the EU would do to Britain’s economy. While Gove’s statement was met with derision by many (Sky News’ Faisal Islam immediately accused him of importing the ‘post-truth politics’ of Donald Trump to the UK), he was eventually proved right. The experts were ignored, and Britain voted to leave.

Over a year later, as Brexit negotiations rumble on, the disconnect between academics and policy-makers and the average voter remains unresolved. ‘The relationship between the experts community and the people has deteriorated significantly,’ according to Professor Jean Pisani-Ferry, the new holder of the Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa Chair at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. ‘Now we have to understand why.’

Jean Pisani-Ferry speaks at the first of the Schuman Centre’s ‘Conversations for the Future of Europe’, on how to structure a post-Brexit Europe.

Speaking to EUI Times after participating in the first of the Schuman Centre’s ‘Conversations for the Future of Europe’, on how to structure a post-Brexit Europe, Pisani-Ferry argued that ‘the paradox of our times’ is that people are more educated than ever, yet their ‘distrust’ for the relationship between science and institutions, politics and power has never been greater. ‘This type of attitude’ was evident not only in Brexit Britain, he says, but also in Trump’s election in the US.

Part of the problem, the professor suggests, is that experts and academics ‘have tended to present things in a way that is not granular enough.’ Pisani-Ferry points to issues like globalisation and European integration as areas where experts have failed to explain or justify the impact on ordinary citizens’ lives. ‘It’s easy’ for experts to explain why something is good in the medium or long-term, he says, but the ‘concrete’ impact on people in the short-term is often neglected.

This was particularly evident in the Brexit campaign. Whereas voters were told incessantly that being part of the EU was good for their country’s economy, they were not told it was good for them personally. Indeed, Brexiteers took great relish in accusing the Remain campaign of engaging in ‘Project Fear’, which involved scandalous exercises like recruiting knowledgeable individuals and institutions to warn of the economic pitfalls of leaving. The lack of positive messaging about how the EU benefits the individual was sorely lacking.

Another reason why voters have apparently ‘had enough of experts’, Pisani-Ferry believes, is that academics ‘tend to exclude’ opinions other than their own from the conversation. ‘We have a much better educated population’ than ever before, he asserts. ‘They consider that they have something to say, and that it might have some value. As academics we tend to respond and say ‘no, you’re not part of the discussion, sorry’. That’s very frustrating for people.’

The solution is to create channels of dialogue, and ‘respect the opinions and views of other people, without just excluding them,’ Pisani-Ferry argues. Places like the EUI have a significant part to play in this regard.

‘Institutions, like the EUI, that have some interface between academic research and policy concerns for the wider public have a particular role, and we should think about the way we can contribute,’ Pisani-Ferry says. Research, of course, will be a part of this contribution. But ‘part of it perhaps,’ the professor reflects, ‘is about how we can find ways to engage people more.’

Jean Pisani-Ferry is a professor of economics with Sciences Po Paris and the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, and he holds the Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa chair of the European University Institute in Florence. In the first half of 2017, Pisani-Ferry served as Director for Programme and Ideas for Emmanuel Macron’s successful presidential campaign.

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