Alpbach 2013: A Meeting of Minds

At the European Forum Alpbach, in Tyrol, some 4,300 people from 75 nations thrashed out today’s most burning socio-political issues.

Top Stories | Roxanne Powell | October 2013

EFA unites opinion leaders, decision-makers and committed students (Photo: Luiza Puiu/EFA)

Slate-grey, dramatic storm clouds frame the ragged mountain backdrop. They fill the horizon and are also reflected in the funnel-shaped, ceiling-to-floor glass wall that plunges below a wide, paved terrace, where scores of smartly-dressed people mingle in the lively murmur of conversation between two sessions of the European Forum Alpbach (EFA). 

Now in its 68th year, the Alpbach Forum is an annual meeting of minds in science, politics and business, promoting progressive democracy and, in its own words, "providing momentum for the development of European integration."

Amid Alpbach’s almost-Disneyesque clusters of mountain lodges and prim petunias cascading down wooden balconies, the intellectual armoury of eager students shadowing world-ranked thinkers and Austria’s movers and shakers was deployed again this year during three August weeks.

The building alone makes a statement. Such modern architecture is startling in Alpbach, a 2600-strong village perched on the steep side of a 1000m-high plateau in Tyrol. Traditional building styles have been mandatory for all new construction since a Council Planning Law in 1953. But the Alpbach Congress Centre, opened in 1999, is the exception in this exceptional place.


Beyond parochialism: "Ort der Denker"

Alpbach is many things: It’s an international ski resort in winter, local hiking centre in summer, a year-round conference location and a pearl of Alpine architecture.

In 1983 it was voted the prettiest village of Austria; in 1993, it won the award for "The Most Beautiful Floral Village in Europe".

The road up the valley was not built until 1926, so folk traditions and architecture were preserved here longer than in many Tyrolean valleys.

Yet Alpbach was propelled from isolation to an international hotspot, becoming the Place of Thinkers after a Viennese student, Otto Molden and a young Innsbruck professor, Simon Moser founded the Internationale Hochschulwochen (International Summer Seminars) in the aftermath of World War II. Their aim: To restore academic freedom and critical debate and discuss ways to unite Europe peacefully.

The first session in August 1945 was so successful that the Internationale Hochschulwochen were continued and renamed the European Forum Alpbach (EFA) in 1949. Since then, EFA has fostered a climate of tolerance – a counterweight to inward-looking post-war Austria.

Today it is a fixed point in Austria’s political and intellectual calendar, where the country’s elite meets, talks and networks (see "The Other Magic Mountain", TVR, Oct., 2011).


Young people build bridges

People at the Alpbach Forum are keen to connect. One Belarus student told me she had come because it was a "beautiful place, with mountains, lakes [and a] concentration of people from all over".

Indeed the Forum hooks up international speakers with decision-makers and committed students.

At least that’s the theory: One earnest, somewhat frustrated Manchester student lamented that you have to queue up to talk to the big-name guests; no more informal talks across generations – the Forum’s hallmark in early days.

As an Austrian event, EFA is ideally placed at the crossroads with Eastern European countries – I had a sense that future elites were being trained here.

At €1,100, attendance to the entire three-week forum doesn’t come cheap, but scholarships enabled some 770 students from 52 countries to participate.

They tend to stay a couple of weeks and hold their own side events – building a community – whereas the fleeting establishment figures are just there for a couple of days.


Out of the ivory tower

EFA is no typical academic conference: On the panels, leading figures from academia jostle with corporate people, politicians, and the odd storyteller, artist and musician.

One former EFA exhibitor, painter Martina Reinhart, said she comes back every year "to exchange ideas, get new inputs and impulses".

Still, there were a lot of suits – was this another Davos?

One white-haired Austrian financial consultant who knew both thought not: "Davos is an international network where you meet once a year" whereas EFA is "more Austrian".

But he greatly valued the presence of three ministers at the Economic Symposium, with the chance to ask questions and get answers you won’t read in the papers – his €600 symposium registration fee was well worth it.

Franz Fischler, the new president of the Forum (a former Austrian agriculture minister (ÖVP) and European commissioner), is quite clear about the differences: "We set higher standards for the academic debate" than at Davos, he said, and "we have strengthened the involvement of young people".


Spreading the ‘Alpbach spirit’

This year’s Forum (12-31 August) included 16 seminars, 12 symposia and five summer schools as well as a cultural and artistic programme.

Interdisciplinarity ranks high, so the four summer schools are not reserved to specialists; for instance, civil engineers and economists can be found on the law course.

And the "Seminar Week" is open to all students: 16 topics are taught by renowned experts, from "Evil in Art" to "Values in Science".

But there’s more to EFA than the annual get-together, as Marine Sargsyan, a very articulate young woman in a sleek red dress and high heels, explained.

The Alpbach Initiative Group she founded in Armenia organises regional projects, and is hosting a training course on responsible citizenship with partners in the UK, Austria, Poland, Georgia and the Ukraine.

Over 30 such groups have sprung up in more than 20 Eastern and Southern European countries, along with France and Turkey.


Not quite international enough?

Still, few know about Alpbach outside of Austria. In a magazine interview, EFA vice-president Caspar Einem traced this to its being  "very oriented towards domestic politics".

Indeed staid, well-to-do "locals" were out in force at the larger events; one seasoned lecturer objected that many went to Alpbach to show off their liberal credentials.

Molden’s original concept could have been "a phenomenal platform with worldwide appeal", he said.

But today it is a mere "market-place for political vanities made in Austria", an "ÖVP family business" as well as "a trade fair… with a high concentration of CEOs, sub-CEOs etc".

This may well change under Fischler’s leadership.

A partnership with the prestigious IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis) in Laxenburg, near Vienna, has already been agreed, and more is in the offing.


A heady brew of ideas

Still, topics ranged widely: from graphene, a two-dimensional material set to revolutionise our lives, to "markets and morals".

Erik Millstone (Sussex University) was "very impressed by the high level of analysis" and found "some views very sophisticated", less complacent and more challenging than he’d expected.

This year, the most heated debate focused on the perilous state of the world economy.

Opening the crowded Political Symposium, Professor Zielonka (Oxford) argued that the current economic system was dysfunctional, but needed ideas rather than money: "Brother, can you spare a paradigm?" he quipped.

Two days later, when Austrian Economics Minister Reinhold Mitterlehner turned up, the Congress Centre was packed the whole afternoon.

The problem was a "betting culture" prevalent in the finance world, argued Thierry Philipponnat, from NGO Finance Watch, "with risks underwritten by society".

The "free-market discipline" was in fact lacking: A failed bank should not pass on its losses to taxpayers.


Finance is not the real economy

A "small" workshop on the future of capitalism attracted over 90 people in a classroom built for 30. This was "Alpbach in Motion" (AiM): 40 emerging leaders from all over Europe from businesses to NGOs, whose task was to rethink the economic model in 48 hours during mountain hikes and intensive talks.

The jovial, bearded Fischler joined in; this was one innovation he’d instigated. Five minutes into the session, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (the anthem of Europe) resonated loudly, causing general hilarity – it was Fischler’s cell phone ringtone.

The AiM group opted for the European social model and deeper EU integration, reflecting what Alpbach is all about: encouraging dialogue across generations, ideologies, religions, nations, and languages, and working towards a stable, democratic, integrated Europe.


Victim of its own success

At times, though, the Forum had all the appeal of a trade fair. Sadly I couldn’t imagine this Dorf being voted "prettiest village" today: the heights of Alpbach sprawl into a charmless alpine suburbia, and there is nothing pristine anymore about this crowded valley, overrun with bulky hotels. The Forum brings business to Tyrol. Still there were glimpses of the future in this time-honoured Alpine setting, perfectly situated to catch the afternoon sun.


Books by Otto Molder:

Der andere Zauberberg. Das Phänomen Alpbach (The Other Magic Mountain. The Alpbach Phenomenon, 1981) 

Odyssee meines Lebens und die Gründung Europas in Alpbach (The Great Journey of My Life and Founding Europe in Alpbach, 2001)

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