This year’s European Forum Alpbach brought together a wide cross-section of students, experts and diplomats to discuss the major issues facing Europe, including the role of Russia in the continent’s security architecture.

A woman carrying an umbrella walks towards the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 2016. Photo: Reuters

Ever since the end of World War II, the European Forum Alpbach has evolved into one of the oldest platforms for multilateral European dialogue involving politicians, intellectuals and students of different nations and generations. As such, this year’s forum offered a unique opportunity to gauge the current mood of Europe heading into the fall.

Since 2012, the forum has been led by Dr. Franz Fischler – a native of Tyrol, Austria and a politician of the Austrian People’s Party. As Austria’s agriculture and forestry minister, he played an important role in negotiating the country’s accession to the EU, and then later served in Brussels as the EU’s commissioner for Agriculture and Fisheries from 1995 to 2004.

Last week, during the concluding days of the Alpbach forum, Dr. Franz Fischler sat down with Russia Direct to talk about the mood among the European elites during a time of crisis for the EU.

Franz FischlerRussia Direct: As the president of the European Forum Alpbach, you are now very well positioned to take the temperature of intellectual Europe. With all the talk about the crisis, what is the mood in Alpbach this year?

Franz Fischler: The mood here in the last two and a half weeks of the forum has been not to comment on the crisis or to add an additional crisis or to be frustrated. The mood here is very clear: there is an opportunity that we can make out of these challenges also a future success. The European Union is not dying but we must think very carefully what the correct actions should be to manage all the problems that we are facing. And there is a series of problems.

There is a reason why we have chosen as the title of this year’s forum “New Enlightenment.” Because we don’t agree that the classical Enlightenment (dating back to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant) has brought into our world only positive things. It has brought positive things – for example, human rights or a model of the nation-state or rationalism. But apart from the fact that all those values have decreased significance or are seen as not so relevant today, they represent only one side. There is another side that the Enlightenment also brought into our world: nationalism and its extreme form – fascism.

But the times have changed. The Enlightenment did not give an answer to globalization and how we should manage a world that is totally globalized. The Enlightenment did not give an answer to digital development. It did not tell us how to deal with modern science. Enlightenment did not give an answer to interdisciplinary issues. It did not bring down the silos - here are the scientists, here are the politicians, here are the entrepreneurs, here are the artists. We must bring all these crucial elements of the functioning of our society together in the right form. But we don’t have good models for that so far. They have to be developed. And this is one of the big issues that we discussed.

RD: What solutions for the future were discussed at the forum?

F.F.: We also discussed whether the traditional democratic party system is the right instrument to deal with the future. Do we need new forms of democratic development, perhaps involving civil society? How do we manage the fact that we have different hierarchies of power – in other words, how do we deal with subsidiarity?

When it comes to politics, there is a problem that the Enlightenment was never accepted everywhere. And today roughly one-third of the world is partly even hostile towards the Enlightenment. But it does not mean that we cannot speak to them any more. So, how do we build bridges to those who reject the Enlightenment, how do we find ways to continue discussions even in confrontational situations? How do we manage the difficulties between the European Union member states and Russia? These are all very burning questions. And what we try to do is not just to discuss them but also to try to find answers and make an impact.

I’ll give you a small example. We invited here a number of ambassadors and diplomats from the European Union to discuss the implementation of the new EU Global Strategy. This has exactly to do with our relations with Russia, Turkey and even Transatlantic relations.

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RD: You mean the closed session, the so-called retreat that was held on the sidelines of the forum?

F.F.: Yes, the Austrian Foreign Ministry organized here a retreat and they discussed over two days all the aspects of the Global Strategy. But then we opened it up and there was a public discussion. And this is the way we would like to proceed. Because the outcome of this discussion will now form the basis for the first discussion within the Foreign Affairs Council this week – the ministers can continue in Bratislava what was begun here.

RD: Last year the migration crisis was the top issue at Alpbach. There was also an important Russia-EU debate. Would it be fair to say that this year it was Brexit that was the headliner?

F.F.: I would not say so. We continued the discussion from last year. The refugee problem continued to be discussed. We are all keen to find better ways to deal with the refugee problem. It is anything but solved. If you are serious about stopping the refugee problem, you must stop the war in Syria – without that, the problem will stay. You can ease it a little bit, but you won’t solve it.

Brexit is the new theme that is being discussed here, no doubt. But we try to discuss Brexit not as a problem of relations between the UK and the other member states or the EU or with Brussels. We have to analyze very carefully where we are with the European Union and where we would like to go. We must accept that there is a change of perceptions. Ten years ago, no one would have agreed that it is possible that the European Union could disappear or break down. But Brexit is a clear signal that it is not totally excluded.

The issue of Brexit is a symbol of the risks that that we are facing within the European Union and the risk that instead of more integration we could have less integration.

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RD: So, from what you are hearing from the participants this year, is the trend for more integration or for less integration?

F.F.: If you ask the participants here, at least the hope would be for more integration. Because here there are mostly pro-Europeans. But what the trend really is might be a different story.

RD: Have you considered inviting eurosceptics?

F.F.: This year there are very few of them because of the topic. But we don’t hesitate to engage also with eurosceptics. Next year the overall theme will be “Conflict and Cooperation,” so automatically we must discuss with the eurosceptics how they see the future.

RD: This year there were no senior Russian participants here. Why is that the case?

F.F.: We had several important Russian thinkers here, including businessmen, and we agreed with them that they would help us invite influential politicians next year. It seems to be a bit difficult – perhaps because we are not known well enough in Moscow. But I am sure that next year Russia will play a much bigger role in Alpbach.