Reaction and Proactivity: Insights from the 2019 European Conference

Francois Hollande speaks at the 2019 European Conference. Image source: European Conference

Francois Hollande speaks at the 2019 European Conference. Image source: European Conference

Usually a hub of activity as the host of prominent speakers and engaging panels, the Harvard Kennedy School certainly fit into that mold on the rainy weekend of March 9 and 10 as the host of the 2019 European Conference, billed as “the largest student-run event in North America.” With conversations on topics from the future of NATO to continuing migration challenges to the General Data Protection Regulations, the Conference spanned a wide range of topics affecting Americans and Europeans alike, and former French president François Hollande capped the event off with a speech calling for a new Europe.

The conference certainly was impressive, and on the first day, your correspondent looked entirely out of place. He didn’t get the memo regarding attire, so he showed up in a Harvard sweatshirt in a sea of suits and ties. On the second day, however, he donned his black suit and favorite paisley tie, fitting in to the crowd of grad students and Europhiles alike.

Just like your correspondent, Europe seems reactionary, only responding to challenges as they come instead of reacting to them in advance. However, on some issues such as GDPR, Europe remains a trailblazer. Reconciling the two perspectives, the Europe falling behind and the Europe marching ahead, will be hard, and Hollande attempted to do so in his keynote address.

Will Europe maintain its place in the global order? Can it deal with the variety of challenges that order presents? The various panelists sounded mostly worried about the answers to those questions, with some optimistic notes interspersed into the broader, more pessimistic picture.

Dialogue with America

America has certainly dominated the dialogue surrounding NATO and the transatlantic relationship, with President Trump’s rhetoric on the need for European states to pay more for their own defense and his refusal to commit solidly to Article V of the NATO treaty, the collective defense provision that a state can invoke if it comes under attack.

Panelist Nicholas Burns, a professor at the Kennedy School and a former American ambassador to NATO, raised concerns about Trump’s recent “cost+50” proposal, which would charge European countries 150 percent of the costs of American troops stationed there. He called the idea “preposterous,” arguing that it recasts American troops as “mercenaries” as opposed to troops defending common interests.

The Brookings Institution’s Constanze Stelzenmuller attacked the proposal even farther, calling it “malevolent” with a “prime intent to trigger people into overreaction.” While Europe has probably not overreacted to Trump’s proposal, Trump forced Europe on the defensive with proposals like cost+50 and a focus on making sure European nations spend two percent of their GDPs on defense, a figure stipulated by the NATO treaty. Burns emphasized that European states needed to spend more on their own defense, but Stelzenmuller cautioned that the two percent figure was a “crude criterion.”

This fits in with the idea of spending smarter, not just spending more. Indeed, Burns noted that European states needed to avoid duplicating already-existing NATO structures while arguing that cybersecurity and intelligence spending should count in that two percent figure. Nonetheless, this whole debate represents a Europe on the defensive, responding to American criticisms, valid or not, with proposals of their own and pledges to increase defense spending.

The panel was largely pessimistic on the future of NATO. Burns warned of Russia’s hybrid tactics, Stelzenmuller argued that America’s withdrawal from the INF treaty left Europe “uncovered” in the face of nuclear attack, and Chairman of the EU Military Committee General Claudio Graziano, largely silent and hardly understandable through a thick Italian accent when he did speak, cautioned that the need for EU political consensus on military affairs reduced its effectiveness worldwide.

Every Ship a Crisis

On the topic of migration, the lack of a EU political consensus also hindered a common European political response. German politician Johannes Vogel frequently talked about his efforts to create clear immigration rules in his home country but also warned of the need for a common European approach to both skilled and refugee migration. He pointedly told the audience that current migration policy would “crash whenever there’s a crash test.”

“Every ship seems to be a crisis,” Federico Soda, the head of the International Organization of Migration’s office in Rome, declared via Skype, echoing Vogel’s pessimism. However, he disagreed with the need for a common European migration policy, arguing that every country needs to come up with its own model and that immigration is the “least one-size-fits-all” policy question facing Europe.

Migration is also a reactionary issue within Europe: the continent only mounted a response after a crisis, the 2015 influx of Syrian refugees. With its internal debate over national identity and the function of borders, Europe has barely formulated any national policy responses, much less a common policy response, and the migration crisis continues to a lesser extent, with migrants mostly crossing the Mediterranean from sub-Saharan Africa.

“Nobody has a good or satisfying answer” for the raft of policy solutions necessary to fix the migration problem, proclaimed Astrid Ziebarth of the German Marshall Fund. Her statement seemed to encapsulate the theme of the panel: A reactionary Europe still does not have the policy answers to its vexing problems.

Creating a New Europe

François Hollande, speaking in French, proffered a solution to some of these problems, closing his speech with an injunction to define “a new Europe, a new project, and a new ideal for the world” based on a new partnership between France and Germany. The two countries, he argued, needed to put past differences aside to create a new “rhythm” on defense, democracy, and the liberalization of trade. A reinforced alliance would bring along other countries in this new mission to reinforce a common and united Europe.

In the question and answer period, marred by some initial confusion over the language of questions and answers, Hollande talked about his conception of the European Dream. In his generation, the dream was to live in “peace and freedom from Portugal all the way to Poland. We reached that dream. But for your generation, what is that dream?”

Hollande asked an incisive question. Perhaps the current European Dream is a return to that Europe of old, united in peace and freedom. Perhaps it is merely a Europe that can resolve the questions of migration and populism, authoritarianism and the transatlantic reaction. Perhaps it is a new Europe that can lead on the policy scene instead of just reacting to events outside its control. This correspondent’s generation does need to keep something in mind, however: whatever dream it chooses, it will need to work hard. Changing the status quo to reach the next European Dream will not be easy.