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How to Save Liberal Europe

There are a lot of good ideas floating around, but how to find the politicians to turn them into real-life policies?

by Martin Ehl 1 October 2018

Politicians need to be in the vanguard of action to save liberal Europe, rather than leaving the defense to civic society. That was the message from former Romanian Prime Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu to intellectuals, think-tankers, and business leaders from Central Europe, Romania, and Bulgaria, who assembled in Vienna at the end of September to discuss the fate and future of the European Union.


“Win politicians back again!” he urged, speaking in reaction to other panelists, who advocated for a united Europe and the EU's founding liberal values to be defended primarily by NGOs and through civic education.


Attacking that idea, Ungureanu insisted that the politicians had to be convinced to get involved: “The EU was invented top down and now the treatment should also be top down.”


Ungureanu is familiar with being at the heart of power, having served as prime minister and foreign minister – during which time he co-signed his country's EU accession treaty – and also having headed Romania's foreign intelligence service. He is in the perfect position to have seen dramatic improvements in prosperity and security in the new EU member states, as they prepared to join the EU and following entry.


However, recent years have seen a wave of illiberal policies that threaten this positive dynamic. Romania's current Social Democratic government has followed Hungary and Poland in limiting the independence of the judiciary: in the Romanian case, governing politicians face prosecution in a number of corruption cases.


Many conference participants had their own ideas about how to address “European” issues in countries like Poland, Hungary, and Romania.


One Polish participant proposed funnelling EU money through various NGOs, who would then be able to save the union through civic education about what the EU means and which values it stands for.


A Romanian participant suggested using data gathered by internet companies and governments to better target policies to improve the lives of those who have felt lost in the region’s transition, especially after the financial crisis.


During the panel on the digital economy, Peter Arvai – co-founder of Prezi, a globally successful Hungarian presentation software provider – noted that the region was overly dependent on manufacturing jobs that would soon be overtaken by artificial intelligence. He floated the idea that this was an opportunity to create the conditions to unleash people's creativity for new work in a new era. However, in speaking, he seemed to have forgotten that it is not a lack of creativity that is the main feature of our times, but a fear of the unknown.


On a similar note, Andreas Treichl, chair of the board of the Erste Group – which operates banks throughout Central Europe – called for financial education for future generations, and a strong capital market within the region, which he said would create the innovative force to promote overall European growth and support the EU's role as a global power.


“If Central Europe can make it, Europe as a whole can make it as well,” said Treichl, who also played on the irony of politicians building border fences, whereas the development of the digital economy needs a free flow in human talent, in addition to capital.


The one-day conference, organized by Aspen Institute Romania and Austria's Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), was an opportunity for those who care about an open and prosperous Europe to gather and seek solutions. The problem is – and here we return to Ungureanu's point – how do we transform these ideas into policies? That requires true courage from mainstream politicians, who too often feel helpless in the face of populist opponents offering easy solutions.


It is not just the digital economy, but also politics that needs new approaches and fresh ideas to confront the simplicities of nationalism and populism. However, the chance of something like that coming out of Central Europe is similar to the chance of the region becoming a new Silicon Valley in the next five years.

Martin Ehl is chief analyst at Hospodarske Noviny (HN), a Czech business daily. The Generation Next: Europe´s Futures conference was held in Vienna, Austria, on 25 September, 2018. Martin Ehl was reporting there for both HN and TOL.

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