Watching European Democracy in Action

My Experience as a Fulbright Schuman Fellow

The author with members of the Aspen España delegation in Segovia, Spain.

This was supposed to be my year for reflection. After more than 15 years of teaching at William and Mary Law School, and two decades of working in more than 50 developing and post-conflict countries around the world, I was looking forward to a year of quiet stability while conducting research on post-conflict constitutional processes at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence. Instead, this has been a year of roiling seas and shifting sands in the world of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights around the world — especially in the United States and the European Union.

During the course of my career I have seen International and Comparative Law transform from niche areas of specialization to become fully mainstream academic subjects. When applying for my Fulbright Schuman, I searched for an institution in which thinking and teaching comparatively are the starting points — as opposed to exotic strategies of inquiry — and where concrete field experience is valued. EUI met all my requirements: the interdisciplinary approach of the Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies parallels the perspectives of the Center for Comparative Legal Studies that I founded at William and Mary.

On the campus of EUI: Tuscan hillsides overlooking Florence.

The Fulbright Schuman Chair has been a perfect fit for me. The first ten weeks of my fellowship have been personally and professionally transformative. EUI supports research and teaching in an environment that prioritizes respect, open-mindedness, and linguistic and cultural diversity. Hierarchical barriers are rare; working groups are organized thematically, permitting researchers to interact freely and equally with faculty and visiting scholars. The result is a warm, thriving, and vibrant academic atmosphere. Within days of arriving, I was invited to participate in the Constitutionalism and Law and the Politics and Muslim World Working Groups. Both groups sponsor fascinating weekly colloquia featuring renowned global scholars. Opportunities to test new ideas and perspectives are boundless, and discussions surrounding the evolving global and European political landscapes have been ongoing, timely, and riveting. Adding to the rewards of working at EUI is its location; the university is housed in fourteen beautiful historic villas scattered across the Tuscan hillsides that overlook Florence.

Meeting with Nobel Peace Prize recipient Martti Ahtisaari (right)

As planned in my research proposal, I have had the opportunity to liaise with European actors and institutions involved in post-conflict constitutional processes, including Nobel Peace Prize recipient Martti Ahtisaari, who drafted the Kosovo peace plan and constitutional framework. I attended conferences with the European Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission) and presented at the 2016 Aspen España Justice and Civil Society Seminar in Madrid and at La Sapienza University in Rome. During spring semester, I plan to teach a course in Post-Conflict Reconstruction and the Rule of Law to doctoral and post-doctoral researchers while I complete my own research agenda.

Presenting at the 2016 Aspen España Justice and Civil Society Seminar in Madrid on Human Rights’ Interface with Populism.

Although the quiet period of reflection I initially envisioned has not come to pass, the opportunity to watch European democracy in action — through elections, referenda, and constitutional processes — is an experience I will not forget. All in all, this year promises to fulfill my hope of contributing to and benefiting from Senator Fulbright’s vision of promoting mutual understanding and effective synergies across continents, which is more relevant and necessary than ever in these rapidly changing times.

For more information about applying for a Fulbright-Schuman grant, click here.