The pragmatic idealist

Written by Ellen Halliday on . Posted in Current profiles, Profiles

Oliver Garner

Oliver Garner, PhD researcher in Law

The Brexit vote on June 23rd 2016 was a wake-up call for many. Not least for Oliver Garner, now a second year PhD researcher in the Department of Law. Garner came to the EUI for the one-year LLM and later joined the EUI’s doctoral programme. The referendum result in favour of leaving the EU, which took place shortly after he secured a place in the second-year, was to shape the direction of his research.

Garner’s thesis examines the consequences of European fragmentation for European Union citizens’ rights. He firmly believes that, if further fragmentation is to be avoided, the ‘empty shell’ of European Union citizenship in its current form must be filled by measures which foster solidarity. ‘In order to ‘Build a People’s Europe’, as the title of this year’s State of the Union implied, you first need a European people to build itself,’ Garner told the EUI Times.

At present, the imbalance in legal content of national and European citizenship provisions serve to divide, rather than unite, populations. Whilst co-nationals are tied together by the processes of government at a national level, Europeans share little more than an abstract identity.

‘The European Union has resulted in a magnification of the level where policy decisions are taken, but the representation of citizens has not followed suit,’ Garner explained. EU migrants ‘rely on redistributive mechanisms that depend on solidarity, but they haven’t contributed through political processes to the shape of those mechanisms. They haven’t voted,’ he said. So although European citizens live amongst each other, legally and politically, there are no legal ties to bind neighbours to one another. Yet ‘EU citizenship undermines national citizenship only insofar as there is no way of creating EU solidarity. The content of citizenship could change that,’ Garner argues.

The tense and at times vitriolic split amongst UK citizens over EU membership demonstrated to Garner that even ‘national community is a myth.’ If national solidarity can be created, then so could European identity.

Urban pro-European solidarity, evident in London, Paris and Brussels, could be the future of European citizenship, Garner argues. In a vision suggestive of modern European city-states, Garner encourages  European citizenship on the basis of active participation. ‘We have to break to cycle where EU citizenship undermines national citizenship, and create an EU citizenship where real solidarity is fostered with one another,’ says Garner. The people who are most European are those in the cities,’ he said.

The idea may seem idealistic, even utopian. Yet for Garner,  idealism is no cause for dismissal. ‘I’m not sure how practicable the idea is in reality, but there is value in setting an ideal goal and putting energy into seeing what is possible,’ he explained. ‘We need idealistic proposals to confront concrete problems.’

For Garner, the distress of the UK’s current political wrangling has offered a personal and a political opportunity. ‘I was fortunate that the United Kingdom’s renegotiation of its membership with the European Union commenced during the time I applied for the PhD programme, as it provided a salient and far-ranging research project to propose for my doctorate,’ he said. Brexit ‘throws the question of ‘what Europe is’ into sharp relief. It’s been bubbling under the surface for years and now it has exploded,’ he said. ‘The symbolic shell that is EU citizenship gives the opportunity to build from the ground up.’


This article was included in the special print edition of EUI Times, distributed at the 2017 State of the Union Conference.

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