Francisco Bataller, a former assistant professor of economics at Kenyon, worked for over 25 years on the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union. During his time there, he focused on issues of economic development and international relations. On March 21, he delivered a presentation entitled “Brexit as a Mess: The present and future of British Politics and European Integration” as the biennial Richard Grandin Shepherd Lecture in Economics.
How did you begin working with the European Commission, and what was your job within the commission?
I joined the European Union as a civil servant after being a professor of economics at Kenyon. In Europe, the opportunity came up to focus on the European Union. When I returned to Kenyon after my three years’ absence, I was offered a job to work on the international side of the European Union, so I was not responsible for issues we see within the European Union. They were always related to the relationship between the European Union and the outside world — mostly developing countries.
How did you transition from teaching economics at Kenyon to applying those principles at the European Commission?
The transition was not very difficult. When I was at Kenyon College, I was teaching international economics and that was my field where I centered my Ph.D. and my dissertation. So I was always involved in international issues. For quite a few years my work was in the area of European trade policies — toward developing countries and other sorts of strategic issues as well — but it was mostly in the context of internal think-tanks. In some ways, I never stopped being an academic because that was my true nature for a long time. Later on, I became much more involved in areas that require negotiation skills and more operational things. Very often this was a complement to the side of policy-making.
Given your own experiences, having received degrees in the U.S., Belgium and Spain, what value do you place on studying abroad?
To tell you the truth, when I came to study in the U.S., for me it was a very clear call because I wanted to learn good economics, and at that time, in the academic world of economics, the strongest place [for that] was the U.S. Today is really different in the sense that there are very good schools almost everywhere. Nonetheless, there is the other side — it is not only the substantive aspects of learning, but how you learn it and how you are exposed to other cultures. The European Union has developed a fantastic program that encourages students, facilitated through scholarships and things of that sort, to spend at least a semester or a year abroad. I know there were some people at Kenyon at my time who did not look at that so positively. They saw the advantage, but at the same time they were concerned that given the quality of Kenyon’s program, whatever they studied elsewhere wouldn’t be as good. There’s a point on that, but I think in societies like the U.S. that tend to be quite insular, the advantage of spending a year in China or in Europe outweighs the difficulties of matching programs sufficiently well so as to maintain the quality of work abroad. So, not only because I did it, I am very much in favor of people doing that.
Why did you choose to present to the Kenyon community on the subject of Brexit?
I have never left Kenyon, at least not in my heart and in my wife’s heart, so Kenyon is always very close to us. I come once a year to Kenyon to visit friends, faculty members, and to revisit the campus. I occasionally, in other locations have given lectures on the European Union, so [this particular presentation] was nothing too special. Of course, I have been working on this Brexit thesis for several months already. This was a very interesting issue for me personally, but I thought that the European Union is not too well known in the US. And Brexit, I suspected, was not a well-known issue. Certainly, it was a very good opportunity to present my ideas at Kenyon and help people at Kenyon reflect on those matters.
What advice would you offer to Kenyon students interested in pursuing careers in economics or international relations?
Keep informed about what you are doing and what is going on around the world because that is the foundation. You as an economist can apply your tools of analysis. Whenever you have something in front of you there is always an opportunity. As an economist, the job is not about teaching [people] how to make money or making money, it’s just analyzing with the tools at hand. My only work as an economist has been in academia, so there are many other jobs that you can do. But one key in international relations is: The first thing you have to do is learn more than one language — which not many people end up doing in this part of the world. Then, be alert of what is going on. Read newspapers every day — not the sports page, the substantive part. And then travel. Get to know other countries because then you will get the bug of wanting to understand what is going on in international relations. The last part is luck. International relations jobs are not easy to come by because many people want to do them, so there is always a factor of being lucky, and that’s something that is uncontrollable.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.