28 June 2011

The Future of Europe

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Yesterday I had the privilege of attending The Chicago Council on Global Affair's program entitled, "The Future of Europe".  This was in cooperation with the Transatlantic Academy, with Executive Director Stephen F. Szabo moderating the panel.  Steffen Kern and Hanns W. Maull were the featured panelists, the former an economist and the latter a foreign policy and international relations specialist.  I was notified of the event by a family member and after attending the 75 minute panel discussion, I was sufficiently impressed with the content.  I look forward to next year's programs from the CCGA, especially if they include European topics.  I would definitely like to become a member once I earn a slightly higher pay grade.

The panel discussion centered largely on the hot issues of Europe: Greece and Libya.  Naturally, this unfolding to a more general discussion of European issues, but the focus was primarily on the Greek crisis and Libyan intervention.  Briefly discussed topics were the rise of China and other new powers and the US and European alliance.  Szabo gave each panelist the floor for 10 minutes and then proceeded to audience questions.  The format allowed the panelists to react far more to the audience's curiousity and gaps of knowledge, a definite strength to the program.  However, 10 minutes is an even more superficial version of a TED talk.  Their stances on complex issues of fiscal policy or international relations were reduced to sound bites.  I found this rather perplexing because the devil is in the details; back me up, here.  Granted, had Kern delved into fiscal and monetary policy, my eyes would have glazed over from the vocabulary and my lack of comprehension, but I would've walked away wondering what that was all about.  The glib summations of their policy recommendations left me little to question and ponder, so I can't say it provoked a need to more deeply analyze the situation.

Of course, I went to this program with Why So Red? in mind.  I have been looking for cultural outings in the Chicago area to embellish the blog with American connections.  I treated my presence there not only as a delightful, personal diversion for my intellectual interests, but also as a negligible reporter interested in the CEE angle.  Let me begin by stating that Europe as a whole is relevant to CEE because more countries are joining the EU (Croatia being the newest member) or entertaining the possibility.  The Greek crisis brings up a lot of interesting questions for the East Bloc because none of them are in the Eurozone.  The EU is the largest economic, financial, and fiscal market area with only 80% debt to GDP (unlike the 100% in the USA).  He said that the Greek crisis has come at the highest point of the EU's 50 year history and surprisingly is not an economic crisis, but an existential crisis.  It is feasible for all of Europe to be financially/economically/socially yoked together?  The symbolism of the issue is far greater than the numbers discussed.  The main points of the crisis are: the contagion effect, the level of EU solidarity, and the loss of credibility.  Kern also discussed the disparity between fiscal and monetary policy in Europe, which are not decided in conjunction and need to be.  While the Greek crisis (as well as Spain and Portugal) presents problems for Europe, it is also inadvisable for Greece to pull out of the EU.  Their lot has been essentially cast.

(Note: This is my analysis and is unrelated to either panelists' comments.)  You may be wondering why this has implications for the CEE members of the EU and future hopefuls.  The economy is a great hurdle for these countries to clear.  The Eurozone does not include all the EU member states precisely because it economically ties their fates more closely together.  The Greek crisis may prompt the big EU powers (Germany, France, and Britain) to be far more strict on admission to the Eurozone.  Schengen is one thing, the euro is another.  It also brings up a touchy topic in Europe: how to economically function as one with multiple national policies on labor.  Expectations on work, as well as leisure and social safety nets, vary by country and Greece has rioted against the austerity measures, which bring Greece more in line with the fellow EU members holding its debt.  It's as much an identity problem as an economic one.  CEE faces hurdles left over from the USSR days, but they're not insurmountable.  Polands ascension in Europe and the EU is a great example to its neighbors.  Maull commended Poland on maturing so quickly in the international and domestic scene and I fully agree.  I want to add that when the panel discussed the "European identity" issues (nationalism vs. Europeanism), Maull remarked that identity as a European is strongest in the younger generation and Eastern Europe.  I think this would be a good topic for another blog post.  Or maybe an entire week. 

I truly enjoyed the panel discussion, but I felt it could have included more specialists, gone longer, and perhaps focused in on certain topics (naturally, I feel more inclined to CEE related ones).  Both panelists were German, which I did not consider an issue, but it would have been optimal to include specialists of different backgrounds.  Their common nationality did not harm my opinion of their assessments and recommendations in the least, but other backgrounds would have contributed to a sense of pan-Europeanism.  Given that Germany is portrayed as the "paymaster" and powerhouse of the European Union, having solely German panelists discussing the state of Europe perpetuates to the illusion.  Kern in particular acknowledged that Germans like to believe they are the paymasters of Europe, but also stated that they do not realize it is simply because of their large economy.  Their political power in Europe is almost solely based on the economic standing.  Perhaps with this in mind, a panel discussing the future of Europe should include other nations that are not as prominently positioned in Europe.

I am glad I went and it provided food for thought; it got me thinking on how current EU issues and trends affect CEE politically, culturally, and financially.  I'm crossing my fingers that CCGA's next year of lectures include more on Europe because I will be there like white on rice.

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