Impressions from the 4th Economic Forum Of Young Leaders in Nowy Sącz, Poland

I was a bit frightened by the word "economic" when I set off for the 4th Economic Forum Of Young Leaders in Nowy Sącz, Poland. Nothing against suits, but I am not an economist. I represent a small trilateral German-Polish-Ukrainian NGO project, implemented on a budget of about €30,000. Something to do with intercultural understanding, European youth development, nothing that could be called "economic" in the stricter sense, but my colleagues had talked me into applying and I had been chosen.

Photo: Christian Diemer
Panel discussion with old leaders

The Economic Forum Of Young Leaders is so to speak the little brother of the Economic Forum of "real" leaders, an annual gathering of European politicians and economists in nearby Krynica to discuss matters of European relevance. The proximity of the two conferences’ locations is deliberate. Not only can the young participants attend selected events of the "real" Economic Forum, but some of the "adult" leaders look in at the youngsters’. Ex-leaders more than active ones, one must add: former Spanish prime minister José Maria Aznar, former Irish European deputy Dick Roche, former Ukrainian minister of foreign affairs Boris Taresyuk, to name only a few of them.

First part, already on the evening of arrival: networking, networking, networking. In small groups the participants have to present the projects and organizations we represent to each other. In my group: there's Vladimir from Kaliningrad, a serious Russian. If we get him right – he talks in Russian, his English is not that advanced – he works for a kind of think tank developing bilateral solutions for Russian foreign policy issues. Sounds important. During the gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine for example, they formulated advice for Ms. Timoshenko, the Ukrainian president, on how to behave. For Mr. Putin also? No. Little wonder, as the seemingly independent think tank organisation turns out to be a first step on the career ladder of the Russian ministry of foreign affairs, meaning that giving non-conformist advice to the Russian government would probably be tantamount to killing one's own career. When it is my turn to present my little project, Vladimir leaves for coffee. The other group members, apparently bigwigs as well, seem weary too.

I feel discouraged, unsure of myself. I am poleaxed by this stiff, cool, businesslike behaviour. I ask myself if I am really in the wrong place, a musician among leaders.

I think of Vladimir as the prototype of an arrogant, stubborn Eastern European. But by the second day he comes to me, invites me to have a drink with him, toasts to German-Russian-Ukrainian friendship, embraces me, and I see: rather than a super-important guy he’s a boy longing for friendship. And that’s how the forum itself soon develops for me.

Photo: Christian Diemer
Party nights for the young leaders

Second part: speeches, speeches, speeches. José Maria Aznar walks in slowly, shuffling past his bodyguard, with a careless greeting to the audience, who are applauding in awe. He takes his place on a sort of divan, legs crossed, torso comfortably leant back. Up flares his face on the projection screen, black hair strictly parted, a narrow, austerely elegant physiognomy. A man of state, no doubt. The moderator introduces him, referring to Aznar’s outstanding economic achievements in Spain during his period of office, "Mr. prime minister, the stage is yours!" Mr. prime minister takes his time, mumbles something undefinable into the microphone, and out of the mumbling arise his words like tentative hands, groping, feeling, sometimes suddenly rising up, thoughtfully serving up small morsels of supreme knowledge to the young generation. "Well…I agree with you…that I have been an excellent prime minister." Later on we also learn that "my private life…is…hum,very good. Very good." The prime minister’s English is not very good. And some of his arguments are even insolently flimsy: "Hi, Mr. prime minister, I am Mai from Georgia, Europe promised us solidarity, but these are empty words, what do you concretely do in order to protect us from Russia?" Mumbling, his hands tying a leisurely knot, the prime minister seems to be confused by the directness of the question. "Well…you see, Mr. Putin is a very good friend of mine…" – "Thank you, Mr. prime minister."

The European leader who wins hearts is the Irish former deputy to the EU, Dick Roche. Not only because of his positive attitude towards a Ukrainian EU-membership, on the condition of sustainable development in that country. Also because he is someone who really communicates passion, one might say love for the European idea, an idea of real peace. "If you have any friends in Ireland," he shouts to us as he walks from the stage, referring to the second Irish EU referendum for the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, "tell them that on the 2nd of October 2009 the most beautiful word in the English language is: yes!"

And discussions gather momentum with friendships emerging. The formal waffle becomes personalised, intensifies, becomes controversial. Mr. Aznar repeats slightly often that "you cannot explain Europe without Christianity, you cannot." "Hello, Mr. Aznar, I am Adem from the Netherlands, I am a Muslim, I am a European. Don’t you think that you underestimate the historical influences of Islam on the development of European culture, that you neglect the growing number of well-integrated Muslims within contemporary Europe, and the fact that Christianity surely is part of an ambivalent European history but maybe not of a unanimously shared European future… –" "Stop him, stop him," Mr. Aznar mumbles to the moderator, thanks for the "provocative" question and concludes: "You cannot explain Europe without Christianity."

Photo: Christian Diemer
Live bands were responsible for the leaders' entertainment.

But we have already reached the point when the discussions after the discussions become more thrilling than the panels with the important guys. What is more relevant for the future, the shared Christian history of 2,000 years (or is this a crude historical simplification in itself) or the common experience of the destruction of the intellectual (Jewish) potency of an entire continent two generations ago? To what extent do we need the European past to design a European future? Do we need a concept of European identity with restrictive, exclusive conditions? Do we need values that are positivistically defined or structurally open? Is freedom a value or a phenomenon of a certain political culture? Is democracy the supreme achievement of mankind or an anachronism retained only in Old Europe, whilst Chinese-like centralism is in the driver’s seat already?

What do I take home? A cold. Ideas. Friends. Maybe that’s what I appreciated the most. Lots of new friends from all different cultures – isn’t that a forward-looking output from a forum that deserves the title „European Forum Of Young Leaders?“

Already in advance the subtitle of the forum could have dispelled my anxiety about a formal, narrow understanding of the word "economic" that I feared I wouldn't be qualified for: "An opportunity to meet, make friends and talk about the future of Europe." I was not at the wrong place after all.


Where? In Nowy Sącz, a sleepy, but astonishingly beautiful town with 45,000 inhabitants in the Malopolska region of southern Poland.

When? Every year in September. 2009 was the fourth one.

The organisers: European Meeting Centre/Nowy Staw Foundation; Economic Forum in Krynica; Foundation for the Development of the Education System; Polish National Agency of the Youth in Action Programme.

The guests: Economic and political leaders from EU member states and from other countries, most of them also guests attending to the Economic Forum in Krynica.

The participants: Anyone can apply to participate, both organisations and private persons. The range goes from interested students to start-up-businessmen, from party members to progressive thinkers of smaller or bigger NGO’s. The application deadline is in July.

What do you get? Contacts, colleagues, friends; an exchange of knowledge, experiences, visions; talks by important people; an insight into and passion for European politics, fun.

What do you have to give? The forum is for free. Travel costs are refunded up to a certain point.

Want to know more? www.forum-leaders.eu

Want to watch the panels live? www.europeanweb.tv

or http://www.forum-leaders.eu/index1.php
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