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It is not like this village is somewhere on the way. Half way into a valley, which is closed off by a glacier at its other end, and surrounded by mountains, you find it on a 15-minute walk up the hill from a river. Red flowers shine from the carved wooden balconies of traditional houses, farmers stack up freshly cut grass in lines over the surrounding meadows for the sun to turn it into hay. There is one supermarket that just opened recently, some hotels, a few restaurants.

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Photo: Forum Alpbach
The view from the Alpbach Congress Centre down the valley.

Small town, big forum

This is the Austrian village of Alpbach. It hosts an event called "European Forum" at the end of summer every year. This year it attracted around 4000 people from 67 countries. Kwon is one of them. He is a student from South Korea and just happened to learn about the event while he was travelling through Europe during his summer break from university. He signed up immediately to stay in Alpbach for a week. "This was about the best week of my life," he says on his last day.

The day before, Kwon attended a speech and discussion with the President of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus. Klaus is a notorious opponent of any form of supranational cooperation in general and the European Union in particular (which earned him E&M's Flop European). At an event called European Forum he naturally could not find much support but had to face questions along the lines of "Mr. President, could you explain why you reject the idea of human rights?" or "Mr. President, why did you delay the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty?”. Kwon was shocked. "In Korea a president is like the sun – you are not allowed to look at him directly. But posing questions, and especially questions like this, that is..." – he ends his sentence there, searching for words in vain.

Side-events: the many faces of the forum

Speeches by political and economic figures are one of many important elements in the program of the European Forum in Alpbach. They are put together into panel discussions in smaller side-events. Such side events are then, for example, on health policy, on reforms in the educational or the welfare system, or talks on finance and economics. Next to these political discussions you can find many academic events at the European Forum. Those are bundled in the first week of the two-week Forum. On the academic side the first week comprises summer schools of European Integration or European Law and the seminar week, which this year saw 16 seminars on the main topic of the Forum "Justice, responsibility for the future". Two teachers, who complement each other, run each seminar. For example, in this year you could have attended a seminar on free will and legal responsibility (i.e. if you are not free to choose, how can you be blamed for stealing the chocolate?). This seminar was held jointly by a philosopher and a law professor. Further seminars were on topics of global justice, on fights over resources of water and soil, on women's rights, on Keynes vs. Hayek in economic theory, on the contribution to justice of European and international courts, on the biological roots of morality, or on justice for the actually growing number of native Americans.

The Austrian minister of science and education might ask you and the group for your experiences of studying abroad or your view on tuition fees.

However, what is special about this event is that mostly the visitors bring a good amount of time with them to Alpbach. The seminar teachers, of course, stay in Alpbach for the whole week. You can buttonhole them with questions during coffee breaks, or in the evenings. To get the most out of these speakers, the students who visit the Forum can invite any of them to so-called fireside talks in the evenings. Such occasions rarely take place next to a fire, particularly given that the temperatures hit around 30 degrees Celsius every day. They usually take place in restaurants nearby the Conference Centre. A text message will let you know exactly when and where you have to show up. And then the Austrian minister of science and education might ask you and the group for your experiences of studying abroad or your view on tuition fees. Or, if it is a fireside talk in the academic realm, then a university teacher might want to discuss with you her view that human rights are becoming more and more a question of rhetoric.

This is also a mixture Kwon appreciated (apart from the political-celebrity sight-seeing). He found the discussions during the day, the political events in the later afternoon, and the parties and fireside talks in the evenings to be a genuinely European experience.

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Photo: Veronica Sendrea
This is how Alpbach greets its visitors.

The European History of Alpbach

In fact, what is now called European Forum was founded in a very international spirit of reconciliation and academic exchange. In the first half of 1945, when World War II was ending, a group of Austrians, partly from the opposition movement against Hitler, had the idea of founding an "Austrian College" together with "International university weeks". They came across the remote village because it was a place which the Nazis never set foot in. A fresh start was needed because the founding event in the summer of 1945 brought together citizens of nations who had just ceased fighting each other. It is reported that subsequently on the first day the atmosphere was often a bit tense. However, it seems that cigarettes, the currency of that time, were not only used to pay for the expenses of the first event, but also brought academics from opposing sides together.

Since then the European Forum Alpbach has been growing each year, which did, at least some extent, spoil the homely atmosphere of familiarity of the event. 700 students participated in the seminar week this year, which occasionally pushed the venue to its limits. The European Forum Alpbach 2011 in total attracted around 4000 visitors from 67 countries, the organisers say. Next year's topic will be "Expectations – The Future of the Young". You can apply for scholarships to cover the participation fees (ranging from 500 to 2000 EUR) and even accommodation (20 EUR per night). Travel expenses can be reimbursed, especially if you come from Eastern Europe. To apply for scholarships, be sure not only to consider the Forum directly but also look up the Initiative Group (IG) closest to you. The IGs raise funds for scholarships and hand them out themselves. Check www.alpbach.org for more information. The deadlines for applications vary but are usually around the end of April.

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