After having changed my summer vacation plans on account of a painful Achilles tendon inflammation which rendered hiking in the Dolomites impossible, but made bicycling up the Mur Valley in Styria a very delightful, if hot, experience, I ventured on my Tyrolean experience at the Alpbach European Forum. Alpbach is a beautifully preserved Tyrolean mountain village, where since 1945 an annual 3-week intellectual meeting takes place.
Since the beginning of the year I had been involved in planning two 3-day sessions during this event, the ”Perspectives” and the “Financial Market Forum”. The Perspectives dealt with European Economic Policy and Political issues under the motto “Experiences and Values”. Interesting (some more so, some less) speakers from the EU Commission, from academia, government and think tanks confronted and discussed a variety of issues dealing with European values, the status and prospects of further integration, the crisis.
One of the most interesting sessions had four young Europeans, affected by the crisis in a positive ornegative way, present their personal stories within the context of theircountry and the crisis (Germany, Greece, Spain) and elicit responses from four Austrian politicians, the finance minister, the minister for the environment, the president of the labor union and the president of the business chamber (wrongly names Economic Chamber). Very impressive stories, presented movingly in excellent English were met by the politicians with understanding and regret. However, the latter failed to provide any concrete response which would have shown a way forward. The labor union president boasted of Austria’s high expenditures for active labor market policy which accounts for Austria’s (relative to the EU) impressive record in employment, and especially youth unemployment (however, still more than 300.000 Austrians are unemployed today), the business president was proud because of Austria’s relatively good growth performance and apprenticeship system, the finance minister promised to press the EU to introduce in every legislation, following Austria’s example, a “generation check”, i.e. the requirement to evaluate each directive with respect to its effect on the generations. The experienced Austrian knows that the generation check, just like the compulsory “gender check”, in 95% of the laws passed, is perfunctorily treated with a uniform “the present law does not have any effect on the gender/generation balance”. Still, the fact that the politicians listened patiently to the 4 life stories, is commendable, even if their responses left a lot to be desired, especially for the 4 young Europeans, and their sisters and brothers in crisis.
I myself conducted a breakout session on “The Financial Crisis as Litmus Test: The Union between Austerity and Growth” with two quite contradictory speakers and very lively and informed participation by the mainly young audience from the Alpbach Scholarship Program. While both speakers stressed the need for more growth, the EU Commission representative saw present EU policy, which relies on a combination of budget consolidation and “structural reform” as adequate, while the other speaker stressed the macroeconomic need to boost effective demand and to reform the tax-expenditure system into a growth-enhancing instrument, both at the EU and national levels. She pointed to the contradiction between the restrictive effects of budget consolidation in time of insufficient demand and the professed growth objective. The well-informed audience concluded during the discussion that EU policy objectives would needto be widened, that the EU obsession with budget consolidation overpowered all other policy objectives, but that all available instruments would need to be employed, in order to overcome the crisis.
The overall consensus of the “Perspectives” was that more European integration was needed, that all political efforts would need to be employed to promote a further deepening of integration. Much hope was put into a new European Parliament and Commission to effect a switch in the generally skeptical EU assessment of EU citizens.
After hiking for a day and a half in the beautiful mountain surroundingsof Alpbach I left Tyrol to go to the lake area of Salzkammergut, where my choir (dakor) had its annual summer retreat at Grundlsee, a stunning mountain lake in the area between Styria, Oberoesterreich and Salzburg. The 40-plus members of the choir, led by the inspiring and indefatigable choirmaster Richard spent 5 delightful days, preparing the program for the next year, swimming in the fantastic lake, hiking, buying local dress (Dirndl)and generally having a good time. Richard chooses the new pieces to practice very thoughtfully, always challenging us more and more and going into more and more difficult territory. In this way, we graduateto more and more romantic and 20th century music, where the emphasis is on musicality,intonation and the finer points of singing – in addition to getting the notes right, no mean task. Much wine was drunk, much midnight-swimming performed, much singing progress made – which made us forget that out of 5 days 3 were rather wet.
Back I went to Alpbach to the Financial Market Symposium, which overlapped (from the content point of view) with the Economic Symposium. Much discussion on the relations between the financial and the real economy, the role of central banks, the direction of EU economic policy, the need for a new industrial and innovation policy. Presentations by the EU officials and their response by the audience showed that no comprehensive EU growth policy existed, that its orientation on budget consolidation cum structural policy left the EU citizens behind (see the rising unemployment, stagnating family incomes, the staggering youth unemployment in the Southern countries) and that no attention is paid at the EU level to the contradictory effects of an expansionary monetary policy and the contraction caused by budget consolidation. Many speakers reported on EU progress in reining in the financial system.
I chaired a session on “Financial Markets between Re-Nationalisation and Europeanisation” where the consensus emerged that the crisis-induced fragmentation of European financial institutions might have bottomed out, as a result of ECB announcements “to do everything necessary” to stabilize the Eurozone, the establishment of a Single Supervisory Mechanism and the basic EU agreement on establishing a “Banking Union” (including a joint bank resolution fund and a common deposit insurance system). However, while many steps may have been taken at various regulatory levels, implementation of many other steps towards a banking union are still a long way from being completed. I concluded that the pernicious re-nationalisation of bank resolution was also endemic in other areas of EU policy, where country-by-country approaches dominate EU or EZ-wide considerations to the detriment of a grander vision where the EU and the EZ should go. An interesting, if lengthy, controversy was provided by a strong critic of the dominance of financial markets over the real economy, based on herd behavior and super-high-frequency trading and a free marketeer who maintained that financial markets, if only left alone from faulty interventions by politicians would overcome the crisis easily. The audience sided and clapped, and inspite of a large banker presence, the critic seemed to prevail.
Alpbach also provides a number of cultural events. An interesting theater performance in a venue called “Vollpension”, the previous in-door swimming pool of Alpbach, where the audience sits in easychairs inside the former pool area, while the actors play outside, presented “Rosemaries Werte”,a parable of real estate dominating financial assets. All set in a farmhouse to be sold, with scurrilous goings-on in the pigpen and with the selling couple. While the performance of the actors was rather grand, the play turned out to be a mishmash of halfbaked misunderstandings of the workings of the financial markets. It may be that the play’s title might have been inspired by the Alpbach Forum’s motto “Experiences and Values”. I was rather reminded of the octogenarian Frank Stronach’s, Austria’s latest arrival to the parliamentary contest, constant proclamations of his “values” as the political panacea. In this play, the strange venue certainly topped the content of the play.
Wholly different was the experience with Franui, an East Tyrolean (Innvervillgraten) folk music banda from the deepest nowhere of Central Europe, who fuse traditional Austrian folk music with classical music, in this case by Gustav Mahler, Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann. This combination creates a new, innovative, very attractive type of music. Franui are mainly a brass band, supported by a harmonica, a violin, a harp and a zither. In this program, Franui only played ‚”Trauermaersche, pieces usually performed during funerals. Very witty introductions by the band’s leader and ingenious interrelations between these different music types made for a great experience. Two months earlier, I had heard Franui in the Vienna Burgtheater, where they accompanied an actor reading Shakespeare sonnets.
The whole forum was framed by many receptions in the various hotels,where up to 600 persons milled, connected, drank and ate. It was mostly extremely loud.
One last experience led me up the the Gartlspitz, the steep mountain peak towering over Alpbach. An extremely steep access over meadows and through woods afforded beautiful views of this gorgeous landscape: mountain peaks, high-altitude meadows (Almen) with cows grazing and cowbells clanging, millions of flowers on the balconies of the farmhouses and hotels, all topped by a pale blue sky with white lamb clouds (cumuli for the initiated).
All in all, not a bad way to spend the summer.