Contemplating Europe from 1000m above sea level
Nearly 4000 people took part in the European Forum Alpbach from 16 August to 1 September 2012: students and academics, politicians and diplomats, businessmen and women and economists. Although the format was familiar, the chairman was new, with Franz Fischler, a former EU Commissioner for Agriculture, replacing Erhard Busek, long-standing Chairman of the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative and of the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe (IDM).
“Expectations – The Future of the Young” was the general heading for this year’s Seminar Week – the European Forum’s summer university – and the various Alpbach symposia on health, universities, technology, the economy, the financial market, politics, law and the built environment, which were accompanied by a large number of smaller discussion and cultural events, as well as the daily early morning meditation.
The international summer university of the Austrian College (now the European Forum Alpbach) was first established in August 1945, just a few months after the end of the Second World War, by Otto Molden, a former resistance fighter in Tyrol and the son of the famous editor-in-chief of the Neue Freie Presse newspaper, and the philosopher Simon Moser. Situated 1000m above sea level in a side valley off the Lower Inn valley, Alpbach offered peace and tranquillity for interdisciplinary discussions. Karl Popper, Erwin Schrödinger, Arthur Koestler, Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, Jacques Delors, Cardinal König, Bruno Kreisky and a large number of dissidents from the countries behind the then Iron Curtain all attended Alpbach at least once, and some of them came several times. From the end of the 1990s the summer university was improved and modernised: the European Forum was created, a new congress centre was built and the number of participants has risen steadily. This year there were 4000 participants from 60 countries, including 544 scholarship-holders, most of them young people.
The European Forum’s political symposia focus on Europe and the European Union, the United Nations and international security policy. Current political topics are also discussed – this year they included a preliminary evaluation of the Arab Spring – as well as political issues relating to the general theme of the Forum. For instance, one political symposium discussed the results of the Rio +20 conference, food security and the role of social media in political participation, under the heading “Providing for Future Generations”.
The first panel discussion on the future of European integration made people sit up and take notice. Ivan Krastev, a Fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) describes the slow realisation that our system is socially, economically and politically vulnerable as a lesson we have learned from the current crisis. In terms of Europe, this means that a break-up of the EU is no longer inconceivable. In addition, a new division is becoming visible in Europe that especially affects those countries that have been hard hit by the economic crisis. People in these countries are particularly mistrustful of politics. This was confirmed indirectly in another talk, this time by former Greek EU Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou, who believes that modernisation is essential for Greece: not just for its economic system but also for the Greek political system and society. This reorganisation will take time – she estimates 5 to 10 years at least.
The need to adopt a different, simpler lifestyle adapted to our resources was highlighted by the panel discussions on the Rio +20 conference and food security. Meeting this challenge is complicated by the fact that most people, including many young people, still follow the maxim of holding onto, or even consolidating, what we have achieved by all possible means. Ivan Krastev countered this view, saying “If we want to hold onto what we have at all costs, we will lose everything we have,” which sounded somewhat biblical.
Several panel discussions bemoaned the lack of political interest among young people. One possible reason for this emerged during two of the discussions: the panel for the discussion on “Perspectives for the Young Generation” was made up entirely of politicians, all male, average age 59. The resentment in the audience eventually led one of the panel members to swap places with a young female member of the audience. The evening discussion on “Social Media, Mobilisation and Political Participation” once again underlined how much young people’s political thinking and action is changing under the influence of social media. Authenticity, openness to dialogue and an ability to withstand criticism play a major role in this form of communication, which requires practice for most people. Today’s social media “natives” are no older than 25. Further reflections on the consequences of this additional mode of communication – whether it be Facebook or Twitter or any of the other new forms – for politics itself and for the way democracy functions, are largely non-existent. However, it is beginning to become apparent that politicians of all ages will have to deal with such forms of communication at some point, and will need to respect the criteria mentioned above.
The same goes for a 68-year-old institution like the European Forum. In his summary of the 2012 Forum, Franz Fischler announced his desire to rejuvenate the European Forum in the coming years and make it more international. According to his vision, in five years’ time it should be possible to take part in the Forum discussions from all over the world via live streaming video. His aim is to restore greater incisiveness to the discussions and to allow opposing views to be expressed. It will be exciting to see what this means exactly in terms of next year’s topic: “Experiences and Values”.
Translated from the Original German