The Other Magic Mountain

A weekend of rarefied Alpine air and earnest policy discussion at the European Forum Alpbach, a green marketplace of ideas

News | Philip Ellison | October 2011

Attendees gather at the Congress Centrum above Alpbach village (Photo: Congress Centrum Alpbach)

With its vivid landscapes and cultured cities, Austria is slow to reveal itself. To glimpse the nation's inner life it takes acquaintance with the ways of Austrian society, its institutions and, of course, the modern-day individuals one meets.

One gets a sense of stewardship among Austrian "movers and shakers". While there is a deep reserve of respect for the collective Austrian legacy, of the continuing importance of its one-time crown lands in Central Europe, today’s Austrians are also bold enough to move the walls of the nation’s institutions to accomodate the present, and even tentatively to anticipate the future.

This is the unequivocal message of The European Forum Alpbach, the annual meeting of minds that since 1945 has made its home for three weeks in the Tyrolean village of Alpbach. Founder Otto Molden called it the "other magic mountain", a place to promote and discuss ideas for a peacefully united Europe. This village of thinkers has played host to some 3,000 participants from over 50 countries.

This year's (Aug. 16–Sept. 2) European Forum Alpbach program had three main parts: Seminar Week devoted to scientific disciplines, research and innovation; the concurrently running Alpbach Symposiums – two- to three-day conferences on themes of architecture, reform, technology, politics, health and the economy – supplemented by special workshops; and the third element being the Alpbach Summer School for students in the higher levels of their university study and young graduates. These events are the work of a non-profit organization (formerly the Austrian College) that is independent of any ideology, religion or political party, and is financed by participation fees, public-sector subsidies, and private sponsors.

In broad terms, Alpbach is something of a public-private think tank: A powerful mix of thinkers and doers, young and old, players and punters, assembled for a three-week bazaar, functioning as its own "marketplace of ideas", all the while usefully fomenting social change. By raising difficult questions and throwing the doors open to stakeholders, critics, special interests, politicians on the make, and the press, Alpbach manages to wash some "dirty laundry" in public, testing the disinfectant powers of sunlight.

One of this year’s hottest topics was served up in the day-and-a-half seminar entitled "Lobbying and Networking in the European Union", with EU-institution staffers, interest-group NGOs, and Brussels-based lobbyists taking part. Possibly just good luck, but more likely savvy programming, the Lobbying seminar seemed ripped from today’s headlines, given the hidden camera "sting" earlier this year with Austrian MEP Ernst Strasser shown soliciting handsome fees for advocacy work in apparent conflict with his Parliamentary duties. Subsequent cases of alleged manipulation of Telekom Austria stock benefiting leading political figures, including ex-Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel [see front page], suggest the dangers of even partial state ownership of business, fueling public perceptions of endemic corrupt practices in high places.

While "the nature, degree, and persistence of corruption in individual European nations varies, the current cases making news in Austria reflect both the failings of the individuals involved and, perhaps flaws in how we’ve regulated business and political activities," said moderator Paul Schmidt, secretary general of the Austrian Society for European Politics.

The seminar tackled big picture questions such as whether or not lobbying activities encourage effective democratic institutions, while addressing the nuts and bolts of how lobbying is done, by whom, and to what effect. All of this was given context by examining decision-making in three policy areas: EU Agricultural Policy, regional policies, and financial markets governance.

It emerged from this discussion that, despite the need for reforms, the continued vitality of the private sector, functioning as an actor, not a subject, in the European Union, depends on its remaining fully engaged with a the powerful EU executive and legislative bodies. This is not a game for the uninitiated, cautioned Brussels veteran Ruth Rawling, Vice President for Corporate Affairs at Cargill Europe.

"Parliamentary lobbying and the lobbying of administrative bodies should be understood as quite different things," she said. With the European Parliament and Council sharing "codecision" legislative responsibilities, and a highly ornate administrative and regulatory structure, networking and lobbying activities provide an important means for developing and sharing relevant information.

The European Union’s decision-making complexity, and diverse national, geographical, cultural, social and economic structures, poses a challenge for professional lobbyists, as they seek leverage by providing original research, and perspective. Franz Fischler, former Austrian Agriculture Minister, and the nation’s first EU Commissioner, pointed to the various Advisory Committees established by the Council in each member’s policy area that invite input from the private sector.

"These Advisory Committees provided a useful forum as originally conceived," Fischler said. "But reform is needed here, too, or they run the risk of becoming another ‘talk shop’" as the flow of information becomes a flood, challenging Commissioners both in their competence areas and in their ability to see across disciplines.

The questions now being raised about the appropriateness of members of the European Parliament taking on "second jobs" as lobbyists may in fact help define the role of Parliamentarians more clearly, benefiting the institution in the long run.

As Europe becomes an increasingly federal state, dominated by supranational institutions, it remains to be seen if the Parliament, as the sole popularly elected EU institution, will become the central arbiter of public policy, a distinct branch of government within the European framework.

The pace of change has, however, brought new optimism.

"Discussions like this one have a role to play, reinforcing democratic processes embracing citizens of all member states," said Erhard Busek, chairman of the Forum. For many, the current financial crisis provides a test of the EU's viability as a central force in European commerce, but a concluding straw poll among those present indicates that the private sector – yes, lobbyists – has a responsibility to remain active in this on-going experiment in democracy.

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