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Time to Decide Europe Summit
In a change of pace for me, I spent hours on Tuesday afternoon listening to a group of smart thinkers and intellectuals debate the future of Europe. I'm still processing everything I heard.
Full disclosure: the event was open to the public, free of charge, and I thought, why not? I had, also, to be completely honest, expected more of the discussion to be on the war in Ukraine in particular, because in the narrow world that lives inside in my head, there is no future for Europe until there is a lasting peace that does not reward Russia’s aggression and genocidal acts. I must also disclose that after years of working essentially independently, I feel very weird in large group settings where I don’t know anyone, and I also have the attention span of a restless toddler. It seems to get worse with age. So even sitting still for hours on end was — unusual. On top of all that, it has been pouring rain in Vienna like the end of days and a series of totally irrelevant but nevertheless annoying things happened to me on Tuesday morning so let’s just say I didn’t arrive in the best headspace.
I cannot rehash hours of complex conversation, but I would like to try and share a summary of what I heard. The event was hosted in the Erste Bank headquarters, a gorgeous totally modern space right next to Vienna’s central train station. That fact was not lost on me as I walked through the public spaces I and many others spent countless days last year helping Ukrainians in. The security guard was even the same friendly gentleman who used to staff the cafeteria when for a brief period of time Ukrainians travelling onwards could enjoy a nice, hot meal one of the bank’s canteens.
This was the second annual one-day conference co-hosted by Erste Stiftung and the Institute for Human Sciences. The idea, the organisers explained, was to come together to discuss the political, economic and social factors required to build a civic, democratic, pluralistic Europe going forward. Boris Marte of Erste Foundation and Ivan Vejvoda of IWN opened it by quoting Olexandra Matviichuk’s recent speech on Judenplatz during which she said “there can be no peace without freedom, no justice without law”. In a positive surprise, just as I was thinking how strange it is to be sitting in a fancy conference room talking about war just a day’s drive away, we were asked to stand for a minute of silence for the victim’s of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
The conference was opened by Austria’s foreign minister, who gave an eloquent speech in English. The main talking point I was left with was his expression of the urgency for EU-accession (really, beyond just paying lip service, I assume) for the west Balkans countries, and eventually Ukraine and Moldova too. He did refer to the Balkans as our “patio”, and I am not sure that was the best reference. I assume it was a politer way of trying to say they are in our backyard already. Schallenberg also spoke about the “global south” and tried to explain why many countries are hesitant to blame Russia. Something about “history”, per the example of Vietnam. (I would call it cynical opportunism, hedging bets, being unsure if you will get more out of the U.S. or China in the long-run.) Austria’s foreign minister also noted since he took the job four years ago, he has never had a “normal work week”. In other words, we are in a time of permanent crisis. That feels about right, and he didn’t shy away from citing Austrian internal political scandals as one of the many crises. He did, after all, even have to serve as chancellor for a brief period of time. In summary, he presented a glass-is-half-full view of the world that felt, more than anything, to me at least, really far removed from people’s (pick a country) lived realities on the ground. He did make it very clear that the old order is over, we are living in a new reality, and likened it to a world post-earthquake.
The speech was smooth and non-committal. I suppose that is how diplomacy works in practice. We were then played a pre-recorded speech by Frans Timmermanns of the EU. I didn’t take any notes. It must have sounded to be mostly like rhetoric.
The first session was entitled “The Unbearable Lightness of Power: Europe, geopolitics, and war in Ukraine.” The full list of speakers and panelists is here. Rather than try to attribute who said what, I would prefer to simply highlight the main ideas discussed and the points of debate. I am going to paraphrase a lot, just as if you were reading my notes.
How can Europe remain relevant while dependent on the U.S. for its security? The shock of war in Europe’s geography. A massive geopolitics shift. Europe lagging Asia in technology, so dependent on the Chinese market. A transatlantic economy? U.S. already has incentives drawing European companies to invest there rather than at home.
The war in Ukraine is a global problem. Russia failed to offer the world a new vision for an order in which the west does not lead, China still undecided. Russia’s invasion massively accelerated the China/Taiwan debate. Countries will have to make choices.
An era of polarisation. The idea of European exceptionalism has been destroyed. Fragmentation. How does Europe stay relevant? Germany so terribly misread Russia, thinking economic co-dependence would be sufficient to preserve peace. Europe mistakenly thought military power didn’t matter. Budgets don’t fight wars. Europe is a post-national project. How to combat the rise of China. Don’t forget much of U.S. foreign policy hugely depends on who (which party) has the presidency. The U.S. political system itself is broken. The transatlantic partnership may therefore come and go. Some argue the EU needs to fix itself internally before thinking about expansion, while others argue expansion is long over-due and only brining everyone into the EU family will ensure a future for the project.
There have been wars in Europe since 1990s, all in states not yet integrated into the EU. In this sense, EU and NATO can both be viewed as institutions which successfully keep the peace. The failure of EU enlargement? Countries of the western Balkans have been in the “waiting rooms” for two decades, with discussions going in circles. Yet in crisis, a mechanism was quickly developed to give Ukrainians temporary protection in the EU.
The war may be long. The U.S. fought for seven years in Vietnam out of fear of losing credibility. Ukraine will win, Putin will lost, but how long will it take? How should Europe treat a future Russia? Russia must be defeated on the battlefield.
The global south — Africa, parts of Latin America, Asia, often see the U.S. and EU in cynical terms, thinking they are only fighting in Ukraine to protect the U.S.’ own special interests. Reconstruction, prize-grabbing. This is of course also Russia’s narrative about its war being one against a west that acts with impunity and thinks it can tell everyone else what to do.
Ukraine’s GDP per capita is 4x less than that of Poland, which is less than the EU average. The future of Russia can only be decided in Russia, by Russia. Not by us. The west also cannot change the east without changing itself in the process. Another mention of the Balkans’ twenty year waiting room. The regimes there have moved from repressive to depressive. Ukraine is in the “emergency room”.
Not everything is about what liberals do. The rise of the far right in Europe. It is in China’s interest to maintain an illiberal regime in Russia.
EU enlargement would create a different EU itself and requires internal reforms. European history must be reformulated in the context of EU and its relationship to national projects.
Europe has no plan on China. Indecisive. The EU doesn’t fit today’s realities because it doesn’t change…it was a post-war project.
Is Europe going to go back to the production of history?
The second session was entitled “Challenges to European Democracy: Fear, Loathing and Hope”. I paraphrase, again:
Context: Russia in crisis, 50% inflation in Turkey.
Refugee crisis in Europe, 5 million Ukrainian have sought temporary protection, including 1.5 million of these in Poland. Polish society accepted for the most part, the one group that is upset are young women, who feel the strain on public services after the arrival of so many Ukrainian mothers and children
Economic warfare, 11 EU sanctions packages
Undermining the rule of law (e.g. spyware incidents)
Revival of the nation state
A narrative of Russian disinformation
Populism, fragmentation, normalisation of the far right. These ideas moving into mainstream debate and discussions in Europe. Many many political parties, fragmented voting, this makes governing more complicated. Some countries, like Austria, even built coalition governments with the far right. “Democracy erodes from the top”. Twelve years of Orban’s propaganda has worked to change many minds in Hungary. Elite-led populism. Example of Mussolini. Democracy being murdered by “aspirational autocrats” (U.S. GOP, Hungary). The move to the far right is not bottom up. It is led by the elite of these parties “come for the culture wars, stay for dismantling of democratic institutions”. The culture wars messages resonate and then those same actors use these to dismantle democratic institutions once in democratically-elected office.
Authoritarianism, interestingly, also rots from the top. China looks fearfully at what happened to the USSR. Elites and their responsibilities (e.g. France). He/she who gets elected is the master storyteller (e.g. Orban). People are scared of a loss of control.
We need alternative stories and strategies of control. Can Germany, for example, move to a Canadian-style system for managing immigration?
Hope for the future. Economic. For the youth. Both left and right agree the current political system is broken. Voters have a feeling of powerlessness. They trust individuals, people, not institutions.
(I think to myself we spend way too much time talking about voting patterns without talking about economic pain across youth, and not only, and the disenfranchisement of so many born in EU but who cannot vote here due to holding third country citizenship despite having grown up in EU countries)
Poland: all parties promising more benefits, worries re inflation. Turkey: the oligarchs are not happy but fearful if Erdogan were to lose.
(I think to myself we keep mentioning the far right but what about the far left, who are quite appealing to young people and doing surprisingly well in elections at least at the local level here in Austria, and many of whom have frightening foreign policy and economic views)
I wish to hear someone talk more about economic inequality. Instead more talk of politics tied to cultural issues. Perhaps that is the distraction, get voters to vote on hot button culture wars issues to distract from the masses across the board failing to feel as much optimism for the future as their own parents once had.
Politics is a debate across a spectrum of redistribution vs. deregulation. The decline of traditional political parties in Europe after economic integration is perhaps because there are fewer levers and tools national governments can pull.
How to mobilise youth? How to reach marginalised groups?
I keep thinking money money money. Your own prospects for the future. Disenfranchisement. Not being able to vote despite paying taxes.
The third and final session was entitled “Feeling the Future: Economy, Energy and Environment” which TLDR was a very simple, if you boil it down, discussion of the climate emergency and the huge challenge to get polluting countries to feel incentivised to act in global coordination to do what we can now to decarbonise before it is too late.
Oil & gas markets since Russia’s invasion — Europe was strategically complacent pre-war, and the emergency response was costly, but EU has managed to find new non-Russian sources of energy without economic armageddon (notably, and this was not mentioned, except for Austria which still imports something like 70% of its gas from Russia).
China is the number one climate issue. It emits 4x the emissions of the entire EU. The belt & road initiative was built around cheap coal plants. We were told that super aggressive, dramatic decarbonisation is necessary. But how?
Russia’s oil & gas revenues are down 50% in 2023 thanks to the oil price cap.
Critical minerals are still concentrated in the hands of just a few countries.
The U.S. inflation reduction act has drawn new investment.
Still may be a tight has market winter 2023-24, what if Russia turns off the taps this time for real?
It is argued the banks and insurance companies could do more to push for climate change action if they stopped offering loans and insuring polluters.
China, despite its pollution, is also the biggest producer of green energy technology (solar, etc).
There is a huge generation gap when it comes to talking about climate action. Young people are much more likely to vote for radical policy change. For many older voters, they equate freedom with “do not change my way of life”.
In this sense, Europe is facing multiple crises simultaneously. We have seen the best responses to crises are often from the private sector, commercial in nature (e.g. Starlink in Ukraine).
Energy companies are still reaping super profits without governments properly tapping into them. Russia still made huge profits in 2022 despite everything. The price cap has helped, but the previous sanctions policy was insufficient.
Global emissions are still growing, driven by China, there is not yet any true global cooperation on climate.
And that was it. After hours of discussion, my head was spinning. I could not bring myself to stay for the dinner (we were kindly invited), although there would have been many very smart and interesting people to speak with, for sure, at the event, I needed some space to process everything I heard. As I walked back through the busy central Vienna train station to the subway, greeted by a sea of ordinary people catching trains, buying food, rushing home from work, I was struck by the recurring thought I experienced while volunteering last year at that same train station, helping refugees: there are those who talk about doing, and those who do. Last year I was referring to the NGOs who had some kind of coordination meetings but those didn’t involve many of us doing the actual work on the ground. Likewise, this was a fascinating afternoon with so many brilliant people (no doubt about that) sharing their thoughts, concerns and worries, but I walked away feeling a HUGE disconnect between the ideas being bounced around and the reality for an ordinary person on the ground here in Europe. Worried about how to pay one’s bills at the end of the month, worried about their kids’ futures, worried about war and climate and all the doom and gloom we are surrounded by, while the average politician seems to spend more time in such fancy conference settings talking in theoretics, while not seeing how many hours people are waiting to see a doctor in the hospital down the road.
Maybe this disconnect was always there and I was too young or too privileged to feel it. I am neither now, and I feel it immensely. Having said that, I was very happy to hear this discussion, but I found even summarising it difficult, because I like to grab onto tangible concrete ideas and facts (like the Hofer cards), and when something feels too philosophical and not backed up by substantive arguments, it goes in one ear and out the other.
I hope if you read to the end you found some of this useful. The full video is here.
Yesterday I met a family friend for lunch who had kindly gathered donations for Cards for Ukraine from their joint 50th birthday party. I then immediately dropped a dozen cards in the mail and went to the arrival center. At the arrival center, I was confronted with the absolute human tragedy that is this awful war a day’s drive from our peaceful lives here:
And now, this same mom, is sleeping on cots as the arrival center is closing by the end of this month, and although she has a Vienna residence permit from the place where she was living until they had to run away from their alcoholic flatmate, this mom has been told so far “we don’t see you in the system” and there is no clarity, none, as to if someone from one of the zillion NGOs supposedly helping in Vienna will help this mother and child find a room in Vienna. Meanwhile, of course, her daughter also cannot go to kindergarten as long as they are technically homeless.
So the tragedy did not end when Putin stopped dropping bombs on Mariupol. It continues here in Europe, on our collective watch. And in that context, I feel like handing a €50 grocery card is a totally ridiculous and insufficient gesture, but it is all I as one person with no strings to pull can offer. And my Telegram group. And another Ukrainian already send this mom the link to sign up for an appointment to try and get to talk to a social worker (FSW) from Vienna in person. Even that is hard to find.
We have a public holiday today. I mailed 5 more cards to villages I had never heard of before today. Will do more tomorrow. One day at a time.
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