>Conference calls

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Thursday saw me strutting my stuff – well, actually sitting in a lecture theatre and then standing at a lectern – at the launch conference for the new CEELBAS research consortium hosted by SSEES on 19-20 April. The keynote speaker was former Education Secretary Charles Clarke, which initially came as something of a surprise to me as I had been expecting a politician with more of profile on European issues (say Dennis McShane or Douglas Hurd). Despite revealing a personal concern with the wider Europe related to the fect that his wife was of Estonian parentage, most of his remarks stayed off European politics per se merely stressing the strategic importance of research and expertise on the New Member States for the UK and how and why he had backed the CEELBAS project as Education Secretary. Paradoxically, his most interesting and compelling remarks came in response to (what I assume was intended as) an awkward question after his keynote speech asking about government’s European policy after the upcoming change of Labour Party leadership and Prime Ministership. Giving an assured and pretty straight sounding answer, Clarke said that Gordon Brown’s supposed euroscepticism was exaggerated and centred mainly on a judgement about economic conditions and the euro. His incidental remarks did, however, suggest frustration that no government had ever really taken on the entrenched euroscepticism of the British media. Perhaps yet another missed opportunity of the Blair era.

My contribution to the panel on citizenship, democratic quality and statebuilding in post-communist argued that, if not converging, political issues such as democratic quality in East Central Europe overlapped (and could inform and reshape) similar going debates. This was quite well received. Although most questions in the session itself were concerned with the post-Soviet state and Serbian and SE European issues discussed by my co-panellist Richard Sakwa Judy Batt, there was an interesting observation about the usefulness of using different (in the questioner’s view anthropological methods) to study politics and something of a googly on how I thought domestic party competition in CEE would affect the development of the EU. This was an ongoing research agenda I had flagged in initial remarks but had hoped to bracket before moving on to the issue of comparability between the old and the new EU. I therefore floundered about trying to think through how this agenda might develop and what in or about CEE parties mattered.

I guess, however, the underlying logic of the question was a good one: to what extent are there really distinct national systems embedded in distinct European sub-regions that can be cross nationally compared, should we not think vertically as well as in terms of national states as part of a multi-level Euro-polity with policy preferences constantly uploaded and downloaded.

There were more critical comments and reactions in the coffee break: a couple of people questioned my use of distinctions between (sub-)regions of Europe such as CEE, Scandinavia, Southern/Mediterranean Europe, which I had hovered up rather unthinkingly from the comparative literature. Why not just pick national cases using criteria from tried and tested comparative methods? What about the contingency of ‘regions’ as historically and culturally defined ideas? Moreover, if I was going to sketch out big agendas or try to answer big question, I should make sure I (eventually) thought in terms of measurement and operationalization. Probably the next stage, however, is simple to decipher my notes and/or get hold of a recording of my contribution and write it up.

Easily best and most interesting session I attended, however came later in the afternoon was that on health and welfare of the elderly in post-communist states addressed by Prof. Sir Michael Marmot (UCL), Chris Davis (Oxford) and Andreas Hoff (Oxford Institute of Ageing) who spoke respectively on health in post-communist states, ageing societies and demographic change in CEE and the elderly in Russia (which along with other states in the FSU in a far more parlous state in terms of health and population decline). Although the panel didn’t address political issues very directly – there was a mention of ageing and the need for pension reform, which rather overlooked the fact that some CEE states have already reformed pension systems and a tendency to blur the distinction between being old and being a pensioner – but I found all extremely impressive. Perhaps is was because I have an emerging research interest in the politics of old age in CEE – one of emerging parallel issues I was on about earlier – and I think what struck everyone was the concentrated expertise and the ease of presentation of a mass of hard findings to report, which rather beats the intellectual soufflé of interpretation and ideas I had been cooking up earlier. In the post-conference reception Chris Davies also explained to me that communist and post-communist heathcare systems systematically over produce highly qualified doctors at the expense of medical personnel with intermediate levels skills, so I should not take the fact my infected toe got treated by a Czech surgeon as an indication of minor VIP status.

On a more academic note, the Oxford Institute of Ageing’s website plugged by Andreas Hoff is a very useful introductory resource and suggests that research on the politics of old age is primarily the preserve of sociologists and social policy specialists, although issues of participation and representation are tackled. As well as a sub-site devoted to a interesting research network co-ordinated by Andreas Hoff on Eastern-European Ageing Societies in Transition there are references to a couple of forthcoming collections:

  • Arber, S., Andersson, L. & Hoff, A. (Eds.) (2007): Gender, Ageing and Power: Cross-national Perspectives and Changing Dynamics.
  • Wahl, H.-W., Tesch-Römer, C. & Hoff, A. (Eds.) (2007): New Dynamics in Old Age: Individual, Environmental and Societal Perspectives. Amityville, NY: Baywood.
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