Research & Studies

A personal perspective – The 4th European Blue Sky Conference

Imagine, if you will, a conference of academics and practitioners discussing a wide range of issues, all relating in one way or another to the challenges, dilemmas and internal and external tensions of the European Union. Picture a conference with topics as diverse as

  • the future of Europe in a global context;
  • the nature and future of democracy and the question of shared values of the European Union;
  • the institutional, political, economic crises, the demons of conservatism, neo-liberalism, nationalism and populism;
  • the issue of the ‘center’ and the ‘periphery’, whether a multi-speed future of the European project is the solution;
  • how the EU should relate to countries who remain today (perhaps forever?) outside the Union but inside the continent of Europe
  • the challenges staring down at Europe from the West (Brexit and the US under the Trump presidency), the East (Russia), the Middle East (Turkey), and the Far East (China)
  • the better late than never discovery of a long neglected potential partner, Africa;
  • the looming and intricate environmental and health threat posed by climate change;
  • and migration, of course.

And there you have it. Entitled Faultlines and Frontlines of European Transformation, the fourth in a series of groupthink exercises organized by the Institute of Advanced Studies at Kőszeg, Hungary (iASK). The series is labelled a European Blue Sky Conference. ‘Blue Sky’ refers to its genre: a meeting of thinkers, but not necessarily of the likeminded. Presenters, participants, commentators or members of the audience are invited to speak freely, void of dogman and doctrines but respecting each other’s ideology.  Come forth with any orthodox or unorthodox thought, pour – out of the blue – the results of their research on the audience, subject it to criticism, group-think and further-think. Be innovative, thought provoking, and confront accepted scientific paradigms head on.

In this instance, a total of 40 speakers with wide-ranging experience offering their thoughts in the hope that at the end of the day (four days, actually) their messages will ignite and impregnate the minds of each other. Free to debate, free to dissent, free to be outrageously creative but, by tradition forward-looking and transdisciplinary.

iASK deeply believes in the transdisciplinary approach. It bases its a research into human-focused sustainable societies on transdisciplinarity. The Institute and all of its events bring together a critical mass of intellectually open, brave and curious professionals from all over the world, as it did this time on November 7-10, 2019 in historic Buda Castle in Budapest.

As life would have it, this reporter in years past has attended, participated, witnessed and spoke at conferences the world over. This is not stated to impress, but to add weight to the following statement: iASK conferences, roundtables, workshops are exceptions to the rule of conferencing. These events, more often than not, turn out to be extended, semi-formal, intense and convivial.  Every topic evokes a surprisingly large number of questions, comments, argument and counterarguments embellishing the theme of the hour. There are no showy stage sets, no ceremonies, speakers rarely adhere to time limits, sometimes they wonder off-topic but on the whole thing, well, simply clicks. The lack of rigidity seems to loosen the postures, free the minds.

For someone not fluent in the Sciencese language it is sometimes hard to decipher what is being said. Large groups of people are spoken of as ‘aggregates’, discussion or debate is a ‘conversation’, no presentation is complete without mentioning ‘context’, ‘value set’ and ‘narrative’ minimum once, preferable more often. Oh, and one more thing: coffee is only available during the breaks acting, to some extent, against the desire to get up and sneak out of the room in the middle of a less-than-exciting onslaught of thought and word.

To report in the constrained space of this piece on all of what was said is impossible. There was much too much meaningful stuff to report on. Believe me, I tried. Having read the first draft of 6,000 words I wrote and not even having scratched the surface (the present version is far less than 2,300 words) I gave up and decided to offer this personal set of impressions.  (The proceedings of this and the previous three European Blue Sky conferences will be published in one single volume ASAP.

So, freed from the burden of having to provide a play-by play account, I thought to highlight two contributions that I believe deserve special mention.

The first concerns the future of the European Union.

The institution is ailing, it is in a leadership and institutional crisis. Groups of countries have widely different views on how to proceed. It is compelled to make decisions on issues today that it would not have touched with a ten-foot pole 20 years ago. Public disillusion, tension between the ‘center’ and the ‘peripheries’ is on the rise. A solution needs to be found, or the European Project could, in the end, disintegrate. In the words of Jody Jensen, senior researcher of iASK: ‘the old system (needs to be) replaced by a new one – but at the moment we don’t know what the new one will be like.’

What the new one could be like, at least an academic concept thereof, came from Albrecht von Mueller, Director of the Munich-based think tank, the Parmenides Foundation. He went beyond listing the symptoms and the diagnosis of what stresses Europe and pointed to the logical cure: to build on the continent’s greatest asset, its tremendously rich historical and cultural diversity.

He argued that the old narrative of avoiding war is still valid, but no longer enough. European individuality needs to be preserved, otherwise the Union will not be able to defend itself from ‘the big countries.’ Reorganizing and exploiting this cultural diversity and building a decentralized structure instead of enforcing a single way of cooperation should be the new approach.  5-10 years down the line this could make Europe an innovation and learning lab – the leader – for the world. It would hopefully do away with the paradox that the majority of Europeans like the notion of the Union while the (same) majority is dissatisfied with its operations, bureaucracy, slowness and frequent indecision in many areas.

He proposes that Europe give up today’s rigid and bureaucratic method of cooperation. Instead, a flexible three-layer architecture should be put in place. The first layer, the foundation of this architecture is a free-trade zone, open to any and all European (EU member and non-member) countries which accept its terms and rules (including Great Britain after Brexit, of course). Layer two is a system of intergovernmental coordination, much like the system in operation presently, but with an obviously lesser bureaucracy. Finally, the third layer is the federal structure some members are hoping to evolve the EU into.

The novelty of this system is in its relative simplicity and flexibility: member states can move up and down from one layer to the other as they see fit, provided they meet the necessary criteria of the various layers.

The three-layer mechanism would, of course, need novel democratic forms of participation and policymaking. Today’s rapidly expanding complexities cannot be dealt with efficiently by the present rigid institutional and party system. They no longer serve amidst the increasingly complex conditions brought on by accelerating technological revolution. New forms of participatory democracy need to be developed to build popular affiliation on individual topics, agenda points as opposed to the rigid ‘take the bad with the good’ type of system in existence today. Von Mueller called this system the ‘eAgora’, the public space of looking at issues individually, not in packages. Cool.

Governments need to be reorganized, too, so that they are able to flexibly respond to challenges requiring cooperation from a multitude of jurisdictions.

The second contribution concerns the future of the world.

In the session on sustainable and resilient societies, Dan Brooks, professor emeritus of Toronto University and iASK research fellow directed a sobering beacon of light onto an all too overlooked aspect of climate change: emerging diseases. He offered the résumé of his soon-to-come-out book by pointing to the fact that high intensity, but low impact outbreaks are already with us, causing enormous losses in lives, profits and treatment costs. The close correlation of the emerging disease problem with climate change is not widely recognized, nor is it treated with appropriate weight; 1.8 trillion USD will be spent in the world in the next 10 years to adapt to climate change, but infectious diseases are not even represented in these calculations.

The world simply does not seem to realize important factors which directly connect climate change and disease despite of the fact that the former has historically been the primary catalyst for the latter. Also, whereas in the past when an epidemic broke out the opportunity of physically moving away was an option, sedentism and urbanization robbed us of the chance of escape; in today’s megacities there is no place to hide or run away to in case of a serious outbreak.

In addition, there is a reluctance (sometimes resistance) to take proactive action to mitigate the effects of epidemics in the animal and plant world. A case in point is African swine fever which broke out in Georgia, USA in 2007.   In the twelve years since nobody did anything to mitigate its spread around the world. The result is that feral populations of boar and warthogs successfully transported the disease to distant places and about 25% of global pork production may be lost next year alone.

Pathogens, (which often can and do jump from one species to another) spread at astonishing speed with mass tourism and travel. It needs to be recognized that the migrants to be truly worried about are not people but animals and plants; that the real threat to health are the hosts that carry and spread pathogens unnoticed, and just because it’s not as visually dramatic as the melting polar ice, this danger lurks around the corner.

The writing on the wall is clear: there is no more time to lose, the danger is existential and is at the doorstep.  Scary as that vision is, triage will be the norm of dealing with disease sooner than we think.

In the four days, of course, there were many other notable sessions and contributions. A few of the gems and pearls worth pondering, and, perhaps, dealing with in greater detail:

György Schöpflin, a former member of the European Parliament: Europe is being challenged by ‘wicked’ extraneous problems that cannot be solved, only handled. The Union has little, if any, experience in dealing with such crises.

Erhard Busek, former Vice-Chancellor of Austria: it’s appropriate to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the dismantling of the Iron Curtain between Austria and Hungary was historically more important;

Emil Brix, Director of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna: the world is returning to geopolitics because it was not prepared for the unexpected consequences of globalization after the cold war. Europe simply did not understand and could not cope with the fragmentation of loyalties, identities, and the weakening of multilateralism.

Szabolcs Takács, the Brexit Commissioner of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade: with Brexit Hungary will ‘stand to lose a lot in a community where sovereigntist countries are a minority in contrast to the federalist orientation.’

Andrei Kortunov, the Director-General of the Russian International Relations Council: the real cause of the present crisis in the EU-Russia relationship is ‘the inability of both sides to find a place for Russia in the new architecture’ after the end of the cold war.

Peter W. Schulze, Professor at George-August University in Göttingen, Germany: an emerging new multipolar world order built around multilateral institutions is not necessarily bad, provided that it is based on equality in the political, economic and military areas as opposed to being driven by narrow national interests.

Edward Kirumira, Director of the South African Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Studies: one of the paradigm traps in building parity-based long-term global partnerships with Africa is historicizing the interconnections and tensions between Europe and Africa. ‘We should learn from history rather than letting it shape us.’

Ilan Chabay, Director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, responding to Dan Brooks: ‘mitigating bad consequences is not enough’, good futures need to be designed’.

James Skelly, iASK research fellow believes that the topic of political discussion and action should be about ‘enhanced human security as opposed to national security’.

Four days of this and more is heady stuff. No doubt about it. So, when it’s over, one walks away dead tired, unable to shake the idea that one definitely does deserve to deposit one’s self in a quiet corner with a drink in hand – and think.

Seriously, the conference was something to behold – and to ponder. As were the previous ones. And, hopefully, as will the next events be: the plan now is to organize a series of workshops to deal with ‘major policy fields’ (whatever they may be) in the spirit of Professor von Mueller and then integrate it in the next, the 5th European Blue Sky Conference. It should be interesting, and if I may suggest: maybe you, Dear Reader, should consider participating…

(Viktor Polgár iASK)