A Month of EuH Conversations – Jana Stehlíková

In the third part of our series of EuH interviews, you have an opportunity to meet Jana Stehlíková, our Student Academic Advisor and the founder of the European Horizons Chapter in Prague. Jana holds a Master’s degree in International Economic Studies and Diplomacy and is a PhD Candidate in International Political Relations at the Prague University of Economics and Business (VŠE). Furthermore, she works at the Department of International Relations of VŠE and serves as a Student Representative in the Academic Senate of VŠE since 2018 and in the Faculty Senate since 2020. Currently, she has been working on her dissertation thesis at the Europa-Institut in Saarland, Germany. Today, we will talk about Jana’s activities, the beginnings of our European Horizons Chapter, and the importance of the entire organization. The interview was conducted by Johanka Paťhová, Head of HR.

My first question will touch upon the start of EuH Chapter in Prague. At VŠE, there were many student initiatives. What was your motivation to set up a completely new one?

My very first impulse was the experience I made at Sciences Po university in Paris, where I spent my exchange semester in 2016. There, I was introduced to the activities and vision of European Horizons at one of the student discussions organised on Brexit. I remember being very impressed by the high quality of the event as well as the format of a student debate, which is typical for European Horizons. Students’ discussion on a certain topic, without a guest speaker, in a format of an open floor debate with a possibility for the contribution given to all participants was something new to me. I have never experienced anything like that in Prague. I found that fascinating and very enriching. Students from all over the world actively joined the discussion and participated in the debate on current political events in Europe while maintaining a friendly atmosphere and open-mindedness. Thanks to their different views, experiences, background and “out-of-the-EU-box” view, I was walking home that evening full of new ideas to reflect. At that time, there were some student associations focused on international relations (e.g. JDI) present at the Prague University of Economics and Business. But their events were mostly organised in the “traditional format” of expert lectures with rather limited space for open discussion. Furthermore, they also operated mainly in Czech language. At that moment, I realised that despite studying international relations, we tend to unconsciously narrow our perspective by discussing international relations with Czechs only. By doing so, we might be lacking new impulses and missing various perspectives. That was the impulse behind the idea of bringing European Horizons to Prague. Back then, there was already a well-established network of 40+ EuH Chapters around the world. This represented a unique opportunity for networking, sharing our views, opinions and experiences with other EuH members studying abroad and gradually attracting foreign students from VŠE to our events. At our university, there are around 900 students currently enrolled in English-taught degree programmes and in addition to that, around 300 exchange students come to our school every semester. So why not give them the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions with us, mutually enrich each other and broaden our horizons?

What topics should be promoted through the activities of European Horizons?

In general, I would say topics which currently resonate in the EU as well as in our country. And that is a subject of constant change. Even in our short three-year history of the Prague EuH Chapter, I have already focused on several themes such as euroscepticism, eurozone or trade agreements. In addition, European Horizons is a constantly evolving entity thanks to its new members. It is crucial that those who are actively involved pick their topic of interest. Luckily, students at VŠE have various specializations and are focusing on a wide scope of different topics. Thus, they are constantly coming up with new suggestions and proposals, sometimes also thanks to the inspiration they get during the exchange study period, various internships or when considering a certain career path… it would be rather contra-productive to somehow limit ourselves. Personally, I am always passionate about anything related to e-diplomacy, digitalisation or cybersecurity. But undoubtedly there are numerous other interesting and important topics. Our current members are very curious about economic issues such as the structural funds, the future of the economic and monetary union, etc. and I am very pleased about that. Especially at VŠE, we have many great experts in this field with whom we have already been in contact. Thus, there is a great opportunity for consultation which can not only help our members in their studies, but also move the quality of our events and papers to another level. Furthermore, the EuH agenda always reflects the agenda resonating within the EU. Honestly, the Czech Republic is sadly still relatively eurosceptic, especially in comparison with other EU member states. However, students at the Prague University of Economics and Business have a deep knowledge and interest in the EU, its functioning, policies and institutions. I see there is a chance for us to make a valuable contribution to the public debate.

What was your favourite event or memory connected with European Horizons?

All the four Cross-Chapter Workshops organised by our Prague Chapter have a special place in my heart. When attending major EuH conferences, despite they take place at prestigious universities such as Yale in the US or the College of Europe in Belgium, one is rather a passive participant. Although you start working on policy papers with other students already weeks in advance and meet many inspiring new people at the conference, it is nothing compared to preparing a big conference from scratch and having full responsibility for it. The preparations for our Cross-Chapter Workshops usually started two months before the actual event. First of all, we needed to come up with the main topic and start promoting it among other EuH Chapters to get participants. Then, interested students from the EuH network applied with essays which we thoroughly read to select the participants and start working with them in groups on the policy papers. All members of the Prague Chapter were very busy with the preparations – from the supervision of the teams to make sure they deliver a good paper, over promoting the event at VŠE to attract attendees for the final presentation, booking facilities at VŠE and accommodation for participants, to logistics associated with picking up people at the airport and organizing a leisure programme. All of this was a very challenging task to make sure that everything will work smoothly during the Workshop itself. What I always enjoyed the most was the feeling at the very end of each Cross-Chapter Workshop. That appeared when the policy papers were presented in the Academic Club, followed by a lively discussion. For me, that was the moment when I calmed down, listened to the presentations, simply enjoyed the moment and I realized that none of what we just experienced in the past days would be possible without the great teamwork of our EuH Prague Chapter. All its members always invested a lot of time and energy and put in 200% effort to successfully turn our vision into reality. At this moment, I am always very thankful and overwhelmed by pure happiness and incredible pride of the whole team. This was always the best reward for me – to know that we have given our foreign guests the opportunity to create a high-quality paper, they enjoyed it and we spent a couple of incredibly enriching days together.

You also took part in two EuH conferences, Digital Economy Youth Summit (DEYS) and European Fall Policy Convention (EFPC). Why do you consider them important?

Both conferences were a great experience for me. I like to refer to that time back in November 2017 as to my month with European Horizons, as the first Cross-Chapter Workshop, EFPC and DEYS all took place within three weeks only. The EFPC was an internal conference where members of all European Chapters had a chance to meet. We had the opportunity to get to know each other and discuss in which direction we wish European Horizons goes in the next years and what are our goals, ideas, vision and mission for the future of the policy-incubator. DEYS was a conference organised at the College of Europe in the beautiful city of Brugges, Belgium. This conference hosted many external panellists and speakers such as diplomats, professors and EU institutions as well as public sector representatives, who delivered incredibly inspiring expert lectures. As part of this conference, we also co-wrote a policy paper on Cyber Defense which has been published recently. I consider both conferences to be a very enriching experience with great importance for EuH. The main idea of European Horizons as a policy-incubator is to give young people a voice, an opportunity to shape the future by openly proposing and presenting their ideas, vision and solutions for current global political issues. That means not only space but also the courage to speak up. The opportunity to formulate innovative proposals and various alternatives and to present them to real policymakers, businesses and public or publish them is quite unique. These ideas are frequently a product of “out-of-the-box” thinking, which means those who have been professionally occupied with these issues may not immediately come up with them. However, to be sure that our proposals are not just dreams, EuH has always cooperated closely with many experts who are there to supervise and guide us. This is what I believe is the unique opportunity that EuH offers to its members. Not only can they meet with inspiring people, professionals from various fields as well as equally passionate students from all over the world (today, EuH has 60+ active Chapters at universities in America, Europe and Asia). But also have a chance to design and propose solutions to global issues.

How did the membership in European Horizons help you in your further career? Would you recommend other students to join these platforms?

For me, starting the EuH Chapter at the Prague University of Economics and Business certainly supported my decision to stay at VŠE as a doctoral student and later on to fully dedicate myself to an academic career. Gradually, thanks to the network, I also became more interested in European affairs. Originally, I started my PhD research with a focus on cyber diplomacy, but my contacts in EuH slowly brought me closer and closer to the EU digital agenda. Currently, I am for the second time in Saarbrücken, Germany to work on my thesis and my first contact here at the Europa-Institut was also made through European Horizons. Furthermore, thanks to my current focus on the EU affairs, I participated in a research project on the presidency of the Council of the EU conducted at our faculty last year. So, whether I would recommend other students to be active during their studies and join a student association? Definitely. It is a great opportunity to meet new people, focus deeply on what you are professionally interested in, possibly also try out different positions within the organization management, etc. Gradually, more and more doors will open to you and it is up to you, whether you decide to accept some offer, or not. Everyone is unique and must find the best way for himself or herself. Student initiatives such as EuH can simply provide you with some extra opportunities.

My next question is regarding the TAČR (Technology Agency of the Czech Republic) project that you have been working on. Could you briefly introduce the structure and outcomes of the project?

It was an applied research focused on setting up a coordination mechanism for the Presidency of the Council of the EU. Over the period of five months, a ten-member research team (including Mr Bič, Academic Supervisor of the EU) analysed the experiences of pre-selected countries with chairing the EU Council. We conducted an in-depth research based on publicly available sources combined with interviews of people with direct experience with the EU Council Presidencies. Finally, in a form of SWOT and cost-benefit analysis, we proposed three possible scenarios for the coordination mechanism of the Czech Presidency in the second half of 2022.

You have followed the evolution of our European Horizons Chapter from the beginning. Are there moments you consider as milestones in the organization’s almost six-year-long history?

As I mentioned, I was introduced to EuH in autumn of 2016, while the organization itself was established in February 2015. From the very beginning, I have closely followed the development of the Prague Chapter. Behind the successful start of our Chapter stood apart from me also Martin Vokálek, whom I asked first to join me as we had known each other from the faculty Academic Senate, and Mr Josef Bič, our academic advisor. With help of Mr Bič, we found the first enthusiasts and co-members and officially founded the European Horizons Chapter at the Prague University of Economics and Business in April 2017. As a turning point, I would mark the sequence of events taking place in autumn 2017. It all started when Mr Bič came up with an idea to organize a “pre-event” of a conference hosted by the VŠE Center for European Studies. This conference with former graduates of the prestigious College of Europe (including foreign diplomats and the President of the Aspen Institute CE) was scheduled for the beginning of November 2017. As Mr. Bič knew that there was an active EuH Chapter at the College of Europe, he proposed to us to invite its members to Prague and hold a small event before the official conference. Coincidentally, one of the CoE students was also Elisabeth Weisswange, whom I met in Paris in 2016 (and who was therefore the person behind the initial impulse of bringing EuH to Prague) who gladly accepted the invitation and together with three other members came to Prague. And the same Elisabeth also co-organized the EFPC, which took place in Germany the only week after that. There she enthusiastically referred to the event as the “Prague Cross-Chapter Workshop” and talked about a new tradition recently established by our Chapter. The thing was that back then, no tradition was planned at all! For us, the event was meant to be a one-time thing only! Anyway, once coming back to Prague from Germany, we discussed the latest development with all the Chapter members. There were only two options: to tactically ignore what was said at EFPC or to face the challenge, accept it and in the name of our non-existing fictional reputation organize another workshop. At this point, I must admit that back in November 2017, as a first-year doctoral student working full-time, I leaned towards the tactical silence. However, the enthusiasm for the idea of accepting the challenge clearly prevailed by the rest of the team and I was outvoted. Nowadays, I am glad to say that FORTUNATELY! Here is proof of the benefits of democracy. 😊 In March 2018, at the second Cross-Chapter Workshop, we welcomed ten students from five different EuH Chapters from Berlin, Barcelona, Toulouse, Bath and Vienna. And the tradition of the workshops has continued until it was temporarily interrupted by the pandemic in 2020. And whether I tend to worry about anything? There is always a certain level of uncertainty about future development of the Chapter and our commitments when our active members graduate or move from the local level to higher positions in the EuH leadership. And I have to say that the second situation happens quite often. I served as a EuH Co-Executive Director for half a year (2018/2019), now our former president Kateřina Hošková, who was previously the regional coordinator of European Chapters, has been in this position since autumn 2019. She then handed over the presidency of the Prague Chapter to Kristína Chlebáková, who previously led the EuH Alumni Network. Last, but not least, Milan Kalců, has been the EuH Treasurer since 2019. I think that perhaps no other Chapter has such a long-term personnel representation in the Executive Board, and I am very proud of all of them. But of course, that creates a big challenge for the Prague Chapter. Our members tend to be head-hunted by the EuH leaders and all the great, talented, enthusiastic and capable people are leaving the local level. And then, when we successfully recruit new members, the situation repeats. Here we have clear evidence that European Horizons simply attracts great and talented students who are highly motivated and have the skills that EuH allows them to develop. Johanka, you joined us in September 2020, so I hope the Executive Board will not head-hunt you before the end of 2021 at least. 😊

The coronavirus has considerably affected the activities of EuH, for example, the international conferences, workshops etc. Do you see any new opportunities or challenges for European Horizons in the times of pandemic?

First of all, in EuH, functioning through virtual meetings is a well-established practice. As a transatlantic think-tank, part of the Executive Board has always been based in the US while the other in Europe, later also in Asia. It is rather rare to have more members of the Executive Board in one country or even at one university. Thus, most organizational matters have always been managed online and from this perspective, the transition to the digital format in 2020 was nothing new. However, in regard to the international conferences, that is a different issue. Here, opportunities, as well as threats, are present. The opportunity lies in the new digital tools and platforms that have been recently constantly improved, so organising a high-quality event is not a problem at all. On the other hand, the threat stems from our oversaturation of online events. Let’s be honest, since spring 2020, we have all spent so much time in the virtual world by working and studying that we might be reluctant to participate in another online event. We are simply tired of sitting in front of our computers all-day-long, we want to finally meet people in the real world instead of working on another paper to be presented to PC screens again. That is also why we are coming up with a new format of the Cross-Chapter Workshop for 2021 which should not be just another online conference. We would like to make it more interactive and come up with an idea of some kind of “gamification”. So, despite its research and virtual format, we want to actively involve as many European Horizons members as possible. Wish us luck!

Jana, thank you for your time and for a very interesting conversation. We wish you a nice rest of your stay in Germany and a lot of success in your other activities in 2021!