Interview with Dr. Abel Polese (A.B.) led by prof. Ivan Tchalakov (I.T.) and Dr. Siyka Kovacheva (S.K.)

I.T. It is necessary to start with the idea of the Plovdiv University Jean Monnet project about the hidden integration, which was borrowed from our Dutch colleagues who studied hidden integration in Europe during the Cold War through the technology teaching program. When devising the project, we thought that there was something on going on behind the official European Union policies. For example, we now have the opportunities to be vaccinated with similar vaccines: – AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna. We define this as European integration in heath protection. We would like to learn more about your views on European integration during the Covid19 pandemic. Let’s start with the first question. After Brexit there was a general public feeling that the attractiveness of united Europe is somehow fading, especially with the financial crisis in 2008-2014, followed by the migrant crisis in 2015-6, and now the crisis caused y the coronavirus pandemic. However, we see an opposite trend in the Western Balkans (Macedonia, Montenegro) that people are still striving to be admitted to the European Union. What do you think about the attractiveness of the current European project?

A.B. I’ve been benefiting from this project for many, many reasons, and the first one is mobility, of course. I feel this even more now that I am outside of Europe, where your rights are not really protected and I know that in Europe wherever I go I feel I’m at home. I think it’s really beneficial to be able to travel to so many places. And to move to many places and to have various opportunities and still having more or less the same rights that you have in your own country.

I.T. Yeah, sometimes it seems that the European Union as a political organization and its institutions like Commission and Parliament and other agencies are too slow to react and reshape the balance between the national authority and the EU authority. In the situation of the COVID19 pandemic, do you remember that in 2021 the United States were quite ahead in acquiring and implementing vaccines while the European Union was struggling to get enough vaccines, and there was some public tension. So we come to our the second question – what are the main challenges now to the European welfare states? How will this be affected now and in the coming years, regarding the freedom of mobility, freedom of any activities, such as leisure, entrepreneurship, education?

A.B. I was expecting this question because it’s probably the most provocative one from a perspective of somebody who’s been living outside of Europe during the pandemic after many years living in Europe. It’s incredibly interesting because the individual freedom that we’ve been praising for many years has been actually backfiring when we found a number of people that thought it was their right to go against the state. That’s a very good question for the Western welfare state, because for the welfare state here in Asia, it’s very easy. It’s the state that decides. Here it’s more like you’re a subordinate part of the community, and the state is deciding for you. And then, even if the state is not giving you the best direction, you still believe in the state. In Europe, we’ve been teaching the people that you should be able to think with your own head, and you should be able to make your own decisions. And as long as this brings us to people who are reasonable, it’s fine, but when it comes to positions that are not very easy to support, then it just backfires. In the European context where you have the right to oppose the government, you can come up with thousands of explanations why you don’t want the vaccine, why you don’t want to wear a mask, why you don’t want to comply with government instructions, but in the pandemic situation, I mean, as we always read, it’s like “my freedom ends where your freedom begins”, and vice versa. If my decision limits your freedom then I don’t know to what extent this is your right. If you don’t want the vaccine, if you don’t wear a mask, if you think that COVID doesn’t exist, then you have no right to public health cure when you feel ill. But at the same time, this contradicts the very principle of the welfare state, and the very principle behind the European Union. So, what do you do if you have somebody in the family who completely disagrees with what everybody else is thinking or with what the government thinks the best thing to do is? At the same time when those positions become very unreasonable, then my question is to what extent those positions should be allowed? I mean, in a less democratic context, things are easier to manage, but at the same time, in a more democratic society, by doing this you undermine the very principle that kind of brought you up.

I.T. And here is the challenge… we see what’s happened in France and the violent opposition in Italy but in a country like Bulgaria we are just working on the resistance or the hesitancy to get vaccinated and the problem is not only during the period of, let’s say, the last 15-16 years of the country’s membership in the European Union, but even before that. The Bulgarian State, I mean, the government and public institutions were hijacked by what we call the ‘oligarchy’ which is similar to the situation in Russia… There is a deep, deep mistrust in public institutions in our public opinion, always showing that people trust the European institutions more than the national ones. What you said about the freedom – that “my freedom ends where your freedom begins”, it’s very difficult to impose some orders or some rules in this extraordinary situation.

A.B. Yeah, I don’t think I have a solution because if I had a solution I would now be here with the Prime Minister of whatever country. But to me it’s a very important question for a social scientist, because do we have the right to limit all the principles that brought Europe to this point? And if we have the right to limit these rights, what are those exceptional circumstances that give us such a right? Because we have also seen that the US and now some European countries as well have adopted a law under which some extreme decisions are actually allowed. Actually, when France introduced the Green many actors were saying: “Well, the president Emmanuel Macron is dangerous because he’s undermining that the principles of a free state. At the same time, I’ve never been a fan of a ‘democracy’, if it means that people who have no idea what’s going on, people who believe that whatever happens have the same rights to vote.  They say that the answer is in educating people. But It’s impossible to educate 100% of the people to the level of deep understanding and accepting or rejecting the vaccine or rejecting a policy.

I.T. I don’t know how convincing they’re for you, but there are some publications on that, for example, Russia is using the social networks to push some of these critical tendencies that people are spreading or creating certain information. I mean that there are also countries opposing to this European integration as a model, which is quite difficult to navigate in this situation. And maybe as you said, we as social scientists have to study and to move to the next questions, which are more in your area, about research of mobility and informality in recent years. My question is: based on your studies, can you say something more about this process, what we name ‘hidden integration and disintegration’, I mean, a process alongside or under official policies? Do you find any evidence in your research which points to what we call ‘hidden integration’?

A.P. Yeah, there are many… I can bring a few examples; this has been widely studied in my field. I mean first of all you have the so-called informal governance. Actually, informal governance in Russia means one thing, but if you apply it to international organizations, informal governance is basically the groundwork for negotiations that happen behind the scenes. So, it’s all the things that you cannot see, but are necessary for the preparation of an agreement, when states negotiate informally in one way or another. There also is a second way. I refer to a book which is called “Informal economics” and it’s when you understand that it’s easier to solve some questions using informal institutions than doing it using formal institutions. When you basically find it more convenient to use informal institutions or kind of supranational institutions than to solve your dispute in a court because in a court it will take lots of time and effort while in some cases, it is possible just to negotiate, which saves lots of time and efforts. We’ve done some studies not about integration in the European Union, but about integration in an international context, and this could be expanded to the European Union because one thing is the formal integration which goes through the standard, classical channels which is like “oh you should speak the same language, you should refer to the flag, you should refer to a number of national holidays”, but on the other hand, you also have values that are chosen by the people contextually, and those values are accepted by a sufficient number of people to make it some kind of mass phenomenon, some kind of tendency. For instance, if you think of Estonia, which is a country where we have Russians and Estonians, and the way to integrate them could not be making the Russians to learn and speak and behave like Estonians. I mean, what we are studying is more about consumption patterns and European ideologies because they were more acceptable than the pure Estonian culture. So, it would not be the way you speak, but it will be the way you renovate your apartment, the way you understand a a lifestyle which is common for a whole generation, and then the way you buy local products and say “Okay, I trust these countries in producing very good milk and other products so I want to buy them”. And then you start identifying with those kinds of values. This is very difficult to measure. But we’ve been trying in a way to construct a narrative that could bring together a number of elements and to show that actually Russians and Estonians have a lot in common, even if they don’t speak the same language, and you can also see it with the Belgians. I mean, you have three languages there. And it’s not the language we use, but it’s the models of communication, it’s the way that we express ourselves so that other people can understand us.

I.T. I would like to directly relate what you said with the issue of mobility and civil rights. Now with the pandemic the green passes and European certificates restrict mobility and thus people’s rights. How is this new process influenced by what you just said?

A.P. Well, if you think of the pandemic as something temporary and not as something permanent, then I think that Europe is doing very well. I would say that there are 2 + 1 attitudes to the pandemic. One is like “we just should close everything”. And there are places like that where it’s now impossible to go. We can see this in places like China or even Japan. For example I’m vaccinated, I have taken 3 PCR tests and I still have to stay home for 2 weeks. And the other way is Europe, where they say “well, it’s more or less fine”. If you look at it from this perspective, actually Europe allows mobility much more than any other country in any other region in the world. I mean the mobility we have within Europe is comparable to the national mobility with some restrictions because we still have some kind of boundaries, however, if this continues forever then we’re going to return to the 19th century. Comparing Europe’s way with the way other countries are dealing with the pandemic, it’s perfect.

I.T. Maybe it is because you’re staying outside of Europe now, and this allows you to see things in a more balanced way.

A.P. I was in Europe two weeks ago. I’ve been traveling to Belgium, Italy, Ukraine for two weeks. I mean I have travelled before and I was travelling now and I’ve seen the way travel is organized. And it doesn’t compare to the national travel, but honestly, to move from one country to another, to be able to see the level of trust between the countries in the European Union … I think it’s quite amazing.

S.K. Nevertheless the barriers to mobility are experienced in different ways by different groups. In the past mobility was encouraged by European policy, especially for studies and work, such as Erasmus schemes for example, but even then, it has affected very few among young people. It was mostly those from wealthy families that could go on Erasmus exchanges from our countries because it caused financial difficulties. And now with the pandemic things seem to have slowed down even more. How do you see this? How is this new situation affecting this type of integration, through free mobility, through encouraging exchanges between universities? We are always doing online meetings, which is not the same like when we used to travel, when we could see each other, when we could hug each other.

A.P. To us in my project, these difficulties are temporary. We now return to the level that we had before. But we’re hoping to talk and find some kind of compromise for the next year or the next two years.

S.K. I took part in a Polish conference on migration and there were English colleagues who agreed with the thesis that transnationalism is over, instead of traveling freely, people will stay in their own countries, maybe this is because of the Brexit and English view, I don’t know.

A.P. Well traveling is not suspended, it’s limited. So before it was like “I could go anywhere for a holiday” and now it’s like “OK, which country allows me to get in for a holiday?”. There are a number of countries that have remained open because they had no choice.

S.K. I would like to ask you, as far as I know you have studied young people, do think that there is a generational difference of how people act in a pandemic situation and will this cause some cleavages between generations?

A.P. Well, your view is affected by your life experience. So not meeting many people for one or two years is different for people that are adults and for people who are forming their social skills. So yes, there is and there will be a consequence. There will be long term effects for this on youth because even if you stay one or two weeks isolated, that’s really affecting your mind. But staying for a whole year… I don’t even know how it looks like… And especially at an age where you usually spend most of the time outside with your friends. Whereas if you are, let’s say, a couple with grown up children – their routine hasn’t changed that much. Of course, everybody’s routine has changed, but if you’re living with your partner and your usual life is living in a village and just going out and doing your work, it’s different. I mean you cannot compare the way the pandemic has affected you if you think of those people who go out every day even just to do sports and I’m not saying just about drinking, but just to go do sports, meet other people, do different things, so there is a generational kind of attitude towards this.

S.K. We are already feeling the consequences on education. I just read a message that in one of the communities in Sliven, about 4000 children have not enrolled in the first grade at school. And we also know that the quality of online teaching is very different. It has been two years already and for young children this is a significant part of their life. Do you think we, in Bulgaria and in Europe, and in the world, would be able to compensate for this lost time?

A.P. No, I don’t think you can compensate. You can just finish as quickly as possible, keeping in mind that the mind will metabolize and will kind of adapt to the situation. So, at some point there would just be a faraway memory, but to be able to do this we should change the situation right now, and there could be many ways. I mean it’s easy for me to criticize or to say “oh, they should have done it this way” but I think we’re not equipped with decisions that could kind of change the life of children and especially in places like Bulgaria. I mean in Southern places where the weather is a bit better just going outside would be a solution, at least for some months. I mean, if you want to reduce the risk and now that the vaccine is widely available, and the question is why people are not getting vaccinated.

I.T.  It is a tough question. Actually, only one third of Bulgarian teachers are vaccinated, the rest 70% consider not getting vaccinated at all. They’re not asking for vaccines, they believe that the vaccines are doing more harm in health than benefits, and this is one of the very difficult issues in countries like Bulgaria, but not only – Romania is in the same situation. Based on your experience, you’ve studied a lot of East European countries, are there still some important differences between the newly accepted countries? Maybe Estonia is one of the good examples for integrating to the European Union, compared to Bulgaria, Romania.

A.P. Well, Estonians are always kind of being inspired by the Finns and the Finns have this kind of blind trust in the government, that is probably easier to manage. I mean Estonians are more Scandinavian and overall are moving very harmoniously with the government, and they believe they could increase the capacity of the government with their own actions, whereas Bulgarians are more Mediterranean, so they’re more anarchic. We don’t really care about the state, we care about ourselves because the state has never treated us well, so why would we should start now… I mean with those rates of unvaccinated people, it’s not even the state. I mean, OK, the state is doing this, but for example I read on Facebook the other day that people are thinking automatically the opposite of what the state is saying – it does not mean that they are autonomous thinkers.

S.K. Yeah, of course.

A.P. So the point is… Honestly, when I went to vaccinate myself, I was also scared because there is one chance in a million that something will happen to me and I’m voluntarily doing it. I mean, I don’t want to cause my own misery by myself. So I understand that waiting for the disease to catch you is easier psychologically than going to get a vaccine where you have a very slight chance of getting some kind of effects, but  I mean, effects are in every vaccine, it’s just that we don’t know. It’s not about the risk, it’s about the perception of risk. And the perception of risk is being amplified incredibly with vaccines. Also, because there’s been a medication that everybody is taking at the same time. So of course, if numbers are higher, you read about more cases.

I.T.  I think we can focus on what you said – that you hope this is temporary and we may not return to the pre-COVID situation, but it will be much easier and better, let’s say in the next year or two. I, myself, think after three semesters of online teaching that there is something like a loosening of ties, social ties, let’s say at your university community, school communities, and it’s already obvious that some students are less disciplined. They don’t go to lectures online. And if this continues in the next year… can we say that we have a whole generation which already grew up in this kind of strange situation, especially in Europe? Here people don’t trust the government and they are not accepting the measures. Bulgaria has the highest level in Europe of deaths from COVID per million of population and still this doesn’t bother most of the people.

A.P. A friend of mine from Uganda said: “oh, we Africans, we are afraid only of things that can kill you instantly, we’re not afraid something will kill you slowly”. It’s really about the perception of risk. It’s not about the risk itself. It’s always about what’s the easiest thing. The easiest thing is just to put more and more pressure on people by telling them to go online because this is the least costly thing, the easiest thing would be to impose something and say OK, we do it shortly for the good of everybody. But then there is the risk of pulling the rope too hard. It would break. In Japan they aren’t trying to impose the vaccine, which is also why the vaccination rate is relatively low. It’s like the frog principle. If you put the frog in hot water, the fog will just slip away, if you put it in cold water and then slowly boil it… So it’s like one more day online, one more semester online… It doesn’t sound terrible.

S.K. The attitude of the people you describe is linked to the theme of informality. I find your research on this topic very interesting. Do you think that the COVID situation in Europe will lead to more or less informality in European societies?

A.P. It’s leading us into more informality because… I mean, how many people have lost their jobs. I don’t know what they’re doing now, but they have to do something so that they can have something to eat. It’s been impossible to conduct more research about those things, but I suspect that informality has gone up, especially in some areas or in some kind of environments. I mean, think of all the restaurants here in Japan. If you keep your restaurant closed, you get money from the government for every day you stay closed, for every day you don’t serve alcohol. In Europe, this has not happened homogeneously. I mean some new businesses are being created, but a lot of other businesses just closed. Businesses have to survive in some other way…

S.K. In those areas, even the owners of restaurants opposed the state regulation to limit the hours till which the restaurants are open and they were openly saying this on all kinds of media, national and local, that they will oppose the state, they will never give up.

A.P. Yeah, but I mean… I’m a bit extreme in what I’m saying, but I think in the end the solution is very easy – if everybody is vaccinated just let them go. The problem is when you say “we don’t want to get vaccinated”, you can’t have both. In Italian you would say “I want a drunken wife and a full bottle”. But you cannot have both. So that’s one thing. The other thing is, if really so many people are opposing this, then OK, let the virus circulate, let the virus kill people and then the people that remain are the ones who will live normally, because you won’t have to close anything. Let some who want to get vaccinated and the others don’t, let some wear masks, others don’t. But the people who clearly oppose the measures, they should not have a priority in hospitals.

I.T.  It was said that, for example, when you are not vaccinated, you usually stay longer in the hospital and you get more expensive treatment. But the idea that we should be limited and the hospital should make people who are not vaccinated pay more and not have this support, is outrageous. On one hand it’s like you said – they don’t want to be vaccinated, to wear a mask, but on the other hand they have the right to go to the hospital.

A.P. In normal situation, yes. But this is not a normal situation. We are back into a situation where kids are asked: What do you want to eat today? Burgers and French fries every day? That’s fine. And then you are back to the situation where you say: wel,l it’s about education, you should educate children that they don’t need to eat burgers and fries every day, but at the same time the human mind is much more reactive to short-term benefits than to long-term damage. Like smokers – I want one cigarette, that will not affect me because the danger is in many years.

I.T.  We are talking about Europe now, but it comes to me that it is quite heterogeneous because we focused our examples in Southeast Europe like Bulgaria and many other countries, even Greece, but in Portugal it was an astonishing success when practically the whole country was vaccinated. And there’s kind of mobilization and trust in the government. Maybe you’ve read this paper about this retired Admiral from the fleet who was a submarine commander and who was the head of the vaccination campaign in Portugal. So, some countries in the European Union managed to create this kind of mutual trust and to mobilize for social action, collective action while in countries like France, even Italy, Southern Europe, the situation is quite different.

A.P. Yeah, you should also see difference by regions, because in Italy there are some regions that are very advanced, and some that are not so advanced. I’m just getting back to what you said about the right to be cured. Let’s say in a normal situation, you cannot predict when you will fall ill. The welfare state is guaranteeing a hospital bed for everybody, even if you’re not doing anything special. The problem is when you start saying “I want to be jumping with a parachute everyday”, and if there is one person that does this, it’s fine, but when the whole country says “I want to be jumping with a parachute everyday”, you know that something wrong is happening. Statistics is not a theory; statistics is what’s happening. The thing is, if you have a virus out there and we know that it’s circulating and you know that by not vaccinating you’re increasing your chance to get the virus, to get hospitalization, you are willingly going against this. Like insurance companies, they say “do you smoke, do you have any kind of diseases?”. And I’m not talking of diseases, but I’m talking of people who are willingly deciding to act during a pandemic like there is no pandemic. The virus is there and the virus is killing people, and the virus is having even worse consequences – long-term consequence on algorithm. First of all, if you don’t believe that, then OK. I see so many people that don’t believe that until they get it. But the point is also it’s not random anymore. It’s not like some of us will get cancer, some of us will get Alzheimer. I mean, statistically we know that, but we know that the numbers are more or less under control, whereas those numbers with the pandemic are not under control.

S.K. I was thinking whether there should be a common EU policy for vaccination making the personnel in some sectors obliged to get a vaccine, may be this will help societies like Bulgaria, Romania where people don’t want to accept vaccines.

A.P. In every situation, we have the people who are for, the people who are against and the people who are undecided. So, to improve the situation you don’t have to target the people that are for or against, you have to target the other people who are undecided. The people who are 50/50 and then you give them small incentives and those people will move to “OK, I’ll do it”. So, in France, in Italy, the green pass has been moving many of the people who were like 50/50 to say “OK, I’ll do it”. The people who used to oppose it, they still oppose it, but at least the people that were not sure what to do, they say “Well, if I want to go to a restaurant, then I’ll do it”. The population of undecided people is very, very high. Imagine there are 30% of people ‘for’, 40% ‘undecided’ and 30% ‘against’. Even if you ignore the 30% ‘against’, then you get at least 70% vaccinated. And then the remaining 30% are going to shrink until the point when you have a number of people that are unvaccinated, which is minimal.

S.K. Do you think that the European Union or the Commission can take such a decision? To impose these green passports everywhere or should the decision stay within national state?

A.P. They could, but then they might also need the support of national governments. They will say no, we have the right to do this, we decide. There could be a conflict. The European Union can only advise.

I.T.  In the field of medicine, the power of decision making still belongs to the national authorities.

A.P. Because the budget for public health is national, it’s not in Brussels, so because it’s national, most of the decision making is there. The European Union can make some kind of binding suggestions but I don’t think they can impose anything.

I.T.  And this is the balance. Actually, moving a little bit away, today there is a big demonstration in Sofia against the European Green Deal. We know that it’s important for example, to close the coal mines. We have a huge region in South East Bulgaria with three big thermal stations and maybe 20,000 people hired, which should be closed in like 10 to 15 years and the people are strongly opposing this. So, the balance between national governments in different countries and the European Union is kind of a more open direct integration, which also creates an opposition in some groups and strong support in other groups and green movements. We have to deliberate, and when you have a decision to be applied, so how do you see this process of continuing integration in the present context, when we have this challenge of COVID, but also we have this challenge of climate change and the challenge of international immigration. And just to summarize your view, if you’ve thought about this, how do you see Europe in the next 5-10 years and Eastern Europe in the context?

A.P. Well, we have two different questions. One is about change in general and one is about Europe. The one about change: people are reluctant to change, we are all reluctant to change, even the most cultivated people they are reluctant to change because we’ve been living this way and it was comfortable, and then we don’t know what’s coming next, so of course, if you plan to close some industries and open other ones, the people who are comfortable in those industries, they’re like “OK, what’s going to happen to me?” So, the point is, it’s about proposing some alternatives to those people, which is again impossible from the European perspective because they cannot know how this is affecting every single region. Unless you study every single region and then you go to Europe and then you go back from Europe to the Member States, whereas the Europe just says “OK, we are cutting on this, just create other things”. So, the only thing to stop this kind of manifestation, not to stop this kind of tool, to use the reluctance to propose some alternatives that they are concrete and they bring more money. Because we have seen it with our cultural policy or with the fishery, it just is not going work which is also frustrating, so it’s not about saying ‘oh, don’t worry, we’re going to pay you for not working’, because the satisfaction of a person also depends on what they get from their contribution to society or from their daily routine. So how do I see the European Union in 5 to 10 years… I believe as one of my colleagues says that of course the story is made by many people, but sometimes at some point it comes to one strong person and this strong person is going to change the course of many things. I could only perceive that at some point some strong personality will come up and will make some decisions that might be unpopular, but it could also be beneficial to all. But this is not predictable. I think that the idea is quite solid and I think that we’ve seen the effects of leaving the European Union in Brexit. Many people are grinning and looking at the situation in Britain, and we say we now have the power to change our destiny, yes, but for the worse. So, I think that the European Union has capitalized a lot on this, saying well, if you want to leave the European Union, leave it, but then just don’t bother us anymore. And of course, the population will always try to say “it was better when we didn’t have those things”, but at the moment we also have some evidence that it’s not really the way they were claiming.

I.T.  Abel, thank you! You mentioned the role of the strong person, whom you don’t see as a dictator but as a person with a vision, like the founder of the European Union Jean Monnet. Do you think there’s kind of a deficit of such kind of leaders at the European level?

A.P. I mean we are always captured between the desire to improve the human condition and the desire not to lose what we have and change is difficult for everyone because you don’t know what’s coming. You are afraid you cannot control what’s coming next. The person who would be able to change things is also a person who has enough connections to get there, and that’s why they are so rare. We are not short of people with strong personalities and very good ideas. But the point is to have the capacity to survive politically and to survive an unpopular decision and to go on for the good. It’s a natural selection. At some point, somebody might come, but I don’t know if it’s coming in the next 5 years, or 10 years or in 20 years.

I.T.  We should also weigh how we teach our students to take responsibility. Siyka, would you like to add something to conclusion?

S.K. Thank you, Abel, it was very interesting for me and so we found a lot of common issues.

I.T.  Thank you very much indeed for the talk!