IN THE SPOTLIGHT: HOLGER HESTERMEYER Interview with CAPAS Fellow HOLGER HESTERMEYER
Holger Hestermeyer is a Professor of International and EU Law at King's College London. He is a graduate of the universities of Münster and UC Berkeley, holds a Ph.D. from the university of Hamburg, and is admitted to the New York state bar and the German bar.
What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?
I was intrigued. The concept of apocalypse is entirely foreign to my discipline. Even so, the call was a perfect fit. Together with a colleague of mine we had just made a pitch for a new centre at a research event held at our college. As a first research project, we thought about disintegration and I had written a draft proposal on “the law and policy of disintegration”. However, we were both operating at the limit of our capacity with teaching and supervision and so we were wondering how to start an interdisciplinary research project if you have absolutely no time at all. We had basically decided to put it on hold for a bit when I read the call and found out that it was a perfect fit. It rarely happens that you do not have to adapt your ideas about a project at all for it to fit within a call. The fellowship is ideal for laying the groundwork for the larger project.
What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?
My discipline (law, in particular international and European law) does not think in terms of apocalypse or post-apocalypse. We do, however, have narratives that follow a similar structure. Take for example the standard account of the history of international governance. According to that account, every new system of governance was born out of the catastrophic failure of the previous one. From the Thirty Years’ War arose the Westphalian System, from the ashes of the Napoleonic wars the Concert of Europe, World War I ushered in the League of Nations and the catastrophe of World War II and the holocaust gave birth to our current system – the United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, the European Union, and the Council of Europe. The reason for this is, partly, that reforming international governance is difficult. Paths to incremental but meaningful reform are sometimes closed and we only change things after a major crisis. Partly, though, this is also how we tell stories as human beings: we want clear turning points, well-defined constitutional moments.
What is your fellowship trying to achieve, which questions is it addressing, and with which methods?
I am trying to obtain a better understanding of disintegration processes in the international system. This starts with a precise understanding of processes of disintegration; and as a lawyer that first of all means understanding the provisions of a legal system that allow for disintegration. Thus, I am currently taking an in-depth look at Art. 50 TEU: the provision that gives EU Member States a right to withdraw from the EU. My goal for the second half of my fellowship is to establish contact with researchers in non-legal fields to help me, over time, fill gaps in my understandings. Thus, I would love to establish contacts with social psychologists and historians interested in disintegration processes.
Ultimately the research is meant as a starting point for a larger interdisciplinary project with the goal to try and make mechanisms of international governance more resilient.
How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography?
I joined King’s College London after working for the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg. I was looking forward to sharing my passion for the international system and the EU. But things developed a bit differently. A year and a half after beginning my new job, the UK voted to leave the EU. Curiously, this led to an almost immediate rise in demand for lawyers with some of my areas of expertise; in particular the combination of world trade law and EU law. For a couple of years, I was busy working on Brexit and some of the implications of Brexit. The process produced an endless number of complexities that hundreds of experts struggled with. The work was very detailed and very practical – ranging from talking to journalists to advising a Select Committee of the House of Lords. It was intense, but it also made me curious to learn more about how to avoid the fallout that seems to be almost engrained in the rise and fall of international institutions.
What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?
First and foremost, the work at CAPAS will help me obtain a more interdisciplinary outlook. Interdisciplinarity is often held out as a worthy goal – and it is, because our real-life problems are not contained within well-established disciplinary borders – but academic reality does not match the lip-service we pay to interdisciplinarity. That reality is that career paths in academia are often rigidly structured along the lines of your discipline. CAPAS is one of those few lighthouse projects where interdisciplinarity actually means something.
What are the aspects you are looking forward to with respect to input from other disciplines, other perspectives, and the exchange with the fellows and people at CAPAS?
I think what I am looking forward to most are the surprises. There are a whole number of perspectives and disciplines that you know are relevant for your work. In my case, I have already mentioned psychology and history, but I am also interested in projects relating to disinformation, for example. I know that the exchange with scholars engaged in such projects will be useful for me. But over the first part of my fellowship, I have also had numerous exchanges with scholars whose projects did not seem related to my work at all at first sight. While all of them were interesting, some of them inspired new ideas for projects or allowed me to think about new and different paths for existing projects. These surprises are a built-in feature of CAPAS.
To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?
My practical advice? Let’s try to avoid the apocalypse, whether through environmental disaster, pandemic, or war.
What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse — whether its films, books, a YouTube channel, or music — what can you recommend?
I find the vision of the post-apocalypse appealing in which mankind tries to escape (or is forced to escape) into a fictional world to make life bearable. Think of Ready Player One or The Matrix. I fear we experience quite a bit of escapism in the present: take the reaction to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. It is drawing a rather bleak picture of where we stand as a species, but we would rather not take notice.