Registration filled up in minutes after Columbia announced its latest World Leaders Forum event, a distinguished panel charged with discussing the future of Europe after the ongoing crisis. Audacious alliterator Artur Renault wrote a report:
In my short time at Columbia so far, no list of speakers for a World Leaders Forum event held as much recognition or excitement as this one, as it contained George Papandreou, George Soros, Joseph Stiglitz, Kemal Derviş, Anne Anderson, and Jan Svejnar; individually all the panelists would have been worth watching, but together they were just too good to miss.
The event was held in Low Library’s monumental rotunda, and the number of press members there was a testament to the importance of this panel. Even PrezBo’s opening speech, usually long and reverential to the guest, was cut short. He barely spoke a paragraph before he passed the authority of the debate to Jan Svejnar, professor of global political economy and director of the Center on Global Economic Governance and moderator of the panel.
Svejnar announced the panel’s structure: each of the panelists would express their opinions for 10 minutes; then, they would be given a chance to react to the other panelists; finally, the floor would be open to questions from the audience. The panel turned out to be an incredibly informative and insightful experience since all of the speakers were very passionate about the issue and, obviously, very knowledgeable on the subject.
The first to speak was Anne Anderson, permanent representative of Ireland to the United Nations. Anderson began her speech by stating she is “a committed European, intellectually and emotionally,” but also “not a cheerleader,” meaning that she has a passion for her continent, while still recognizing its problems; however, she also stated that she is confident that Europe will recover its momentum and get back to its former status of economic prosperity. She explained that the economic and political facets of the crisis are deeply interconnected. When the Euro was created, people celebrated the fact that “Europe was whole again,” and Anderson rejected the popular notion that this unity was a thing of the past. She claimed that if the European governments could connect with their citizens and keep up with worldwide development, this unity was very well possible, giving the example of her native Ireland, where national unity and European solidarity are making recovery possible.
Next, George Soros, chair of Soros Fund Management LLC, spoke. He highlighted the idea that the European Union is facing an existential crisis. The organization had been intended as an organization of equals, but this is not currently the case with the union split into deficit and surplus countries. Soros claimed this is “politically unacceptable.” He went on to outline the history of the crisis, explaining the Euro’s architects’ belief that a political framework would eventually be developed to accomodate the Euro, causing countries to be indebted in a currency they had no control over. This problem was not addressed until it was too late; and Germany, the main agent attempting a solution, has been using the wrong strategy of trying to lower the deficit. He expects Germany to change towards a more justified strategy of trying to increase the struggling nation’s GDP.
After Soros came Kermal Derviş, vice president and director for global economy and development of The Brookings Institution. He started by stating that most American economists last year predicted that Greece would have left the Euro by now; he claimed that they were looking only at economic aspects and not at political ones, ignoring the fact that very few Greeks contemplate leaving the Eurozone, for example. Derviş said the solution lay both with surplus and deficit countries. The split between these two worried him, since Northern Europe has the world’s biggest surplus while the south has huge deficits. He claimed we need to integrate the Eurozone much more, into “quasi-federalism” with a bi-cameral European Parliament because, for example, Germany needs an assurance that its capital is spent in the correct places. He wrapped up by mentioning that his home country, Turkey, will unfortunately be unwilling and unwelcome to join the EU.
Then was Joseph Stiglitz, Columbia professor and Nobel laureate in Economics. Stiglitz reminded the audience that many European nations are undergoing a depression or recession, where there is an enormous waste of human capital. Nobody in the countries’ populations sees any hope without drastic changes. And this was caused by a manmade disaster: the Euro. Without a political framework, he claimed, the Euro was a destructive force, as is austerity. Stiglitz pointed that the solution was a growth strategy rather than austerity, as well as a complete restructuring of Europe itself rather than its constituent states. He believes that now the Euro, which was a beautiful project but incredibly unrealistic, might have to be abandoned if a political framework is not established.
The following speaker was George Papandreou, former Prime Minister of Greece. As someone more directly involved in the European crisis, his opinion was somewhat refreshing. He pointed out that the crisis was not exclusively Greek, but a crisis of the entire Euro, and there is still a lot more to do. Then, Papandreou moved on to point out three myths about the crisis. The first was that the problem is a Greek problem and therefore the solution is Greece’s responsibility; Papandreou claimed that Greeks are the hardest workers in the EU and the solution must also come from elsewhere. Secondly, he stated that the fact that Greece hasn’t reformed is a myth, as in fact it is now widely considered to be the #1 reformer in Europe. And lastly, Papandreou challenged the idea that austerity is the opposite of reform. He also considers racism to be a problem, since there is a discourse of North-South separation that distracts from the real problem, which is democratization. The speech ended with “Europe needs to e a people’s project.”
Finally spoke Jan Svejnar, who emphasized the fact that Europe is rich; what is missing is political will to solve things. He described the situation as difficult and impaired by racist and socioeconomic barriers, therefore necessitating a gradual solution. Now more problems are appearing, the steps are being deferred and the UK is threatening to leave the EU, causing all sorts of problems, and Germany is at the crux of the issue because of its power. And he closed by emphasizing the fact that Europe’s potential is incredible.
These speeches were incredibly enlightening, and it was interesting to see how many of the speakers agreed with one another. They mostly agreed that growth and reorganization is necessary, and all that’s missing is political will. But that raises the question: if they, some of the best economic and political minds of the world, can agree and act on a solution, why can’t the European authorities? It just goes to show that the European crisis is much more complex than can ever be understood from a short panel discussion.