On August 30th 2018 the research team of the project organized a panel titled ‘Accountability after Economic Crises: Institutional Flaws and Political Learning’. The papers shed light on the nexus between policies of accountability and learning from past policy failures in countries that have recently emerged from the post-2008 financial crisis. The comparative and interdisciplinary panel applied the concepts of transitional justice, namely, ‘dealing with the past’, to investigate how four European societies (Iceland, Greece, Cyprus, Ireland) have come to terms with the origins and consequences of the crisis. The panel drew on this year’s call to address questions as to how democracies are coping with the emergence of new economic, social and cultural cleavages as well as how political elites and others challenge the legitimacy of existing institutions and remake new ones. The individual papers provided novel theoretical insights informed by various disciplines (law, political science and public administration) as well as draw on new databases funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) on the political, legal, criminal and regulatory policies formulated in each country as well as incidents of political polarization and governmental instability.

The working papers will soon be available on our website.

The first paper, co-authored by Nadia Hilliard, Iosif Kovras and Neophytos Loizides titled Accountability in Comparative Governance: Flawed Paradigm? critiques the accountability paradigm as expressed in the broader field of comparative political studies. Specifically, we explore the dark side of accountability as a vehicle in the rise of global populism and highlight practices that undermine other core democratic values, such as political learning, consensus-building, and citizens’ rights. We argue that accountability lacks conceptual clarity despite its recurrent use by scholars, the media, and public figures. We present examples of its contested meaning, failures to deliver on promises, and adverse consequences on liberal, emerging or post-conflict democracies. Finally, we argue for a nuanced disaggregation of the concept, distinguishing between retrospective and prospective accountability in comparative politics.

The second paper is co-authored by Kieran McEvoy and Iosif Kovras, and it is titled Who’s Sorry Now? Explaining (Non)Apologies in Post-Crisis Europe’.

Abstract

Following the post-2008 financial crisis, politicians and bankers apologized for their role in the crisis in some European countries but not others. While in Ireland former prime ministers, senior ministers, state officials and bankers offered their apologies for their actions or omissions in the run-up to the crisis, their counterparts in other European countries with similar background conditions, such as Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Cyprus, did not. To understand why, we draw on an in-depth comparative analysis of the most representative case of apologies (Ireland) and non-apologies (Greece). This is coupled with the analysis of a new repository of all recorded official apologies in six European countries, and dozens of interviews with national stakeholders (former ministers, state officials, bankers etc.). We argue that although the struggle for political survival and reputation repair is universal in times of economic stress, the perceived political cost/gain associated with apologies is mediated by political culture. While the public and academic debates on post-crisis accountability have been dominated by the absence of bankers’ prosecutions, very limited attention has been paid to the role of official apologies. Shedding light on the rationale (or lack thereof) of apologies in the aftermath of a financial meltdown is significant, yet understudied. As the paper shows, apology could be seen as a symbolic gesture aiming at restoring state-society relations of trust broken by the crisis. The paper contributes to the growing scholarly debates on official apologies by expanding the scope to include the hitherto unexplored area of post-crisis accountability.

Finally, Ragnar Hjalmarsson presented the paper ‘Transitional Justice After Economic Collapse: The Case of Iceland’.

Abstract

This article addresses the institutional strategies that political elites can deploy to address issues of accountability, truth and justice in times of economic collapse. The Emergency Politics of the Great Recession on the European continent, characterised by deepening legitimacy issues, stand in contrast with the mechanisms deployed by Icelandic political elites in their attempts to relegitimise the political body after the country’s economic collapse. Specifically, the political elite’s deployment of a truth commission; trials of bankers and politicians; reparations; and constitutional reform will be evaluated with the aim of providing comparative learnings for actors interested in democratic counterpoints to the logics of Emergency Politics. From the outside, the Iceland’s path has been perceived as one of unorthodox and uniform success. However, the mechanisms deployed varied greatly in their outcomes: there were institutional innovations worthy of attention; and mistakes were made that should not be emulated. The puzzle raised is why did the mechanisms vary so in their outcomes? It is maintained that mechanisms that were deployed at the early stages of the crisis met a clearly defined need and resulted in institutional learnings that contributed to reforming and religitimzing the political body. Conversely, as the time passed the needs became unclear and political elites followed an instrumental logic of blame games. The advice offered is that political elites cannot afford to delay the deployment of accountability, truth and justice mechanisms after an economic collapse, because they must act and act fast.