Union of Europeans, democracy and political liberalism

For Sean O’Curneen (MSc in European Politics 2002), Secretary General of the Renew Europe Group for the European Committee of the Regions, no two days of work are the same. For over 16 years, he has made the voices of subnational governments and their citizens heard within the EU. His passion for building the Union of Europeans, strengthening European democracy and promoting political liberalism, a society in which every individual can fulfil their potential, continues to motivate him.

The work of Sean and his team supports a group of 100 politicians and a wider network of thousands, including representing city mayors, regional presidents and ministers, and local and regional councillors. Subnational governments play a vital role in the EU and are responsible for half of public investment, one-third of public expenditure, a quarter of tax revenue. Ensuring there are strong partnerships between them and the EU is essential for embedding and influencing policy as well as improving and safeguarding European democracy.

Sean grew up in Spain before studying Astronomy at UCL in London. He went on work as a journalist in France before returning to London to work at the BBC and then in the Press Team at the Greater London Authority. Sean had always been passionate about politics, even back when he decided to study astronomy. He knew that if he wanted to see politics from the other side having a firm academic foundation would be a real benefit. He studied at Birkbeck alongside his time working for the Mayor of London. Not long after he plunged himself into the world of European politics and moved to his role in Brussels.   

With Brexit over, Sean reflects on the history and principles of the EU, when considering why the UK was uniquely positioned to want to leave:

In the 20th century, the EU provided solutions to four existential problems: the threat of invasion; protection of a budding democracy; protection from a dominant neighbour; and prosperity. For every Member State, the EU has provided at least two of these solutions – except for the UK, which historically only needed the EU for prosperity. The UK, therefore, always resented the political union, but not the single market.

Today, there are new existential challenges; the climate crisis, global finances, Big Tech and artificial intelligence, international terrorism, the rise of authoritarianism, and management of migration flows. The leaders of the Brexit movement believe that these challenges are best addressed from the nation-state level. In contrast, in the EU, a majority believe that those challenges are too big for any single European nation-state and that what is needed is a strong political union of nation-states. The tension between those two models will drive the UK and the EU’s relationship for the foreseeable future.”

Listen to the #OurBirkbeck podcast with Sean in full to hear more about his work, his time at Birkbeck and how getting involved in local politics can make a difference to the EU.