An academic in Whitehall
Decorating David Phinnemore’s office are framed front pages telling the story of a momentous event in history – the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. They are images which are a constant reminder of how quickly the political landscape can be transformed.
‘When it happened, I was in my final year at the University of Kent, doing courses in European integration and contemporary European politics, and here we had the whole of postwar Europe changing overnight. It was fascinating.’
He graduated in 1990, then started on a PhD looking into the European Union’s relations with the countries in central and eastern Europe, taking him into the area of European Union enlargement. At the same time Maastricht was being negotiated and he became interested in treaty reform.
‘I have followed these two avenues throughout my academic career. It’s a journey that still goes on as the EU has continued to enlarge and has continued to reform and adopt new treaties.’ In 2000, David joined the staff of Queen’s, where he is Professor of European Politics. He was appointed Head of School in 2012. He says, ‘When you’re dealing with international relations and European integration you’re dealing with something that’s fluid and you have to adapt. That’s one of the most interesting and challenging things in this field – it’s constantly changing. Students appreciate it when their courses reflect on and engage with the most recent developments.’
David’s academic focus has given him an international reputation as an expert on key elements of the EU and led to an inward loan to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) as a senior research analyst.
‘When the coalition government was formed there was a commitment to tighten"Policy decisions, although certainly not made on the hoof, are often made far quicker than people imagine." up the way Parliament was involved in decisions about the transfer of powers and sovereignty from the UK to the EU. It became clear that there would be a bill on increasing control over this.
‘The FCO is not traditionally a department which regularly takes major bills through Parliament, so there was a desire to bolster available expertise on past treaty reform processes. They were also looking for someone with expertise in EU enlargement. I fitted the bill.’
His inward loan was for an initial six months, working in London, but when the EU Bill had to go back to the Commons after being held up in the Lords, the inward loan was extended for three months during which he was able to work from Belfast.
The whole experience taught him a lot about the inner workings of Whitehall. ‘You were very conscious that it was a coalition government. There were sometimes tensions but you also realised how quickly events moved. In academia you can generally take your time, reflecting on things and gradually crafting a paper. In the FCO, if someone wanted some analysis by three o’clock, they meant it. A quarter past was often too late.
‘Policy decisions, although certainly not made on the hoof, are often made far quicker than people imagine. It was also interesting to see how a lot of policy officers are very much focused on their particular brief. They don’t always immediately see the broader context and that’s something which research analysts can bring to discussions – a longer- term perspective, how an issue has been approached before, why certain positions were adopted. This means you can enhance the solid basis on which decisions can be taken.
‘I’m like a lot of colleagues who work on European politics. We pride ourselves on being able to look at the issues from a variety of different perspectives. We don’t operate wearing a set of national blinkers.’
He sees benefits for Queen’s in inward loans of this kind. ‘The University’s profile is raised, its expertise demonstrated. We are a university which can contribute to a whole range of different policies and debates because of the expertise we have here.’
He adds, ‘The reputation of academics is improved, their value to policy-making recognised. But another lesson I learned is that what policy-makers want isn’t necessarily what academics normally offer. You don’t sit down and write 8,000 words on something. You’ve got to be able to write concisely and distil down a whole set of complex arguments into a single side of A4 or – even better – a single paragraph.’