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Seeing the European economy from a historical perspective

Is the single European market in people, goods, money and ideas a new development? Or are we merely reassembling something that existed a century ago? Appropriately, the European Science Foundation is supporting the researchers who aim to find out.

GlobalEuroNet, the Globalizing Europe Economic History Network, runs from 2006 to 2010.

It was set up to promote scientific cooperation among historians and economists in the reconstruction of data sets for European economies in the past century. But it will also answer key questions about European economic integration and interdependence, both past and present.

According to Professor Stefano Battilossi of Carlos III University in Madrid, chair of the GlobalEuroNet steering committee, the programme was born of the realisation that vital data on subjects such as national accounts, standards of living and income inequality have been collected on different criteria over time across Europe. Time was ripe for an ambitious effort to achieve methodological convergence around a common research agenda.

Battilossi says: “For many European countries, historical information has been collected with different methods and purposes. For others, especially in Eastern Europe, the task is still in its infancy… GlobalEuroNet will allow these countries to connect more rapidly to standards of academic excellence elsewhere in Europe.”

One issue on which the programme will shed light is the business cycle itself. We take it for granted that national economies grow cyclically. But we need a common method to reconstruct national business cycles over the past century, assess whether such a thing as a ‘European cycle’ existed, and compare it to others around the world, especially the US. For example, says Battilossi, the UK economy has often followed US rather than continental European fluctuations. By contrast, nations in central Europe have often been keyed into the German cycle.

Battilossi adds that the Network has a keen interest in European economic integration, of which it takes a long-term view. “Before the First World War,” he says, “Europe was a highly integrated region economically. The First World War marked a reversal of this trend and the nations that emerged after the war were weak and prone to economic nationalism. European economic integration only emerged again in the 1950s and 1960s, and since then has gained momentum with the end of Communism. The European Union has had a critical role in promoting common rules (by instance, in antitrust policy) and the establishment of the Single European Market.”

GlobalEuroNet will not look only at Europe. Battilossi hopes that some of its messages will have wider resonance. One of its aims is to find out just how much difference the European Union – under its various titles since the Treaty of Rome in 1957 – has made. What would European trade patterns be like without 50 years of the EU? Would trade barriers have dwindled even without it? The answer, Battilossi says, will tell policy-makers a lot about the possible effects of proposed economic unions in Asia and Latin America.

Economic history works on a long timescale and is only now getting to grips with issues such as the end of communism in Eastern Europe. But as Battilossi sees it, the long view has a lot to offer leaders in these countries. “When they came into existence after the First World War,” he says, “these countries were economically protectionist and institutionally weak. They were politically volatile, had unstable governments and were prone to high inflation. Today, some of these countries have started joining in with globalization but still have weak governments and institutions, and may give in to the temptation of backlashing against globalization. Perhaps our comparative research will produce some economic history that they can learn from.”

EuroGlobalNet’s emphasis is on setting and raising standards in economic history research. It runs workshops on data and methodology to allow the best approaches to become more widely known.

The research supported by GlobalEuroNet falls into three main areas. They are the political economy of globalization, with an emphasis on trade, migration and social cohesion; economic integration and interdependence; and globalization, growth and productivity, stressing technological change, human capital and the diffusion of knowledge.

The amount of cash needed to obtain all this wisdom is impressively small. The Network itself has an annual budget of only €115,000. Some major European countries including France, Italy and the United Kingdom have yet to get involved, and persuading them to join in is another of the Network’s ambitions. But Battilossi says that this modest sum is allowing researchers to release far larger amounts from national funding agencies. GlobalEuroNet researchers from the 12 countries that have joined so far are holding workshops and setting up collaborations which would not exist without it.

Battilossi says: “One of our aims is to reach out to our eastern European colleagues, so we held our second summer school in Estonia this year. The summer school was a collaborative venture which involved colleagues funded by the EU Framework Programme for research. So far we have promoted the creation of seven research teams in different areas, which involve about 100 people at all levels. We have been also careful to give leadership roles to younger academics to help them develop their careers. We are shaping the future of our discipline, and also training scholars who think less in terms of nation states and more in terms of Europe”.

Thomas Lau | alfa
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