One of Harvard’s most important features throughout history has been its unique role as a free and open arena where even the most critical and challenging debates could happen.
The European Conference, which took place on March 3rd and 4th 2017, with its panel mix on politics, business, and culture, was surely the confirmation that Harvard and its students’ role as a world-shaping Forum is more relevant than ever.
This Conference was unique in many ways. First, it was the result of a collective effort by students from four different Harvard schools – HBS, HKS, GDS and the Law School – as well Tuft’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Second, it attracted more than 500 students and speakers from all over the world. Finally, through its 15 panels the conference touched on some of today’s most relevant, and yet divisive, controversial and thus rarely discussed topics, including whether the European Union will survive this unprecedented period of challenges, upholding its values of democracy, openness, tolerance, and social justice.
It would be hard to summarize in one article the entirety of these exceptional discussions. In the next lines, hence, I focus on a few panels, aiming to be insightful and representative of the richness of discussion.
Regional independence: a possible way to integration?
One of the most anticipated panels focused on Europe’s future political setup, and on whether a federation of autonomous regions could be an alternative to today’s model based on nation-states. It is surprising that so little debate on the topic exists in Europe, to the point that the presence among our panelists of Mr. Artur Mas, the former governor of Catalonia and strong proponent of Catalan independence within a European federation, was little short of exceptional. Mr. Mas argues that, like Scotland, Catalonia represents today a chance for Europe to create a model of how to settle territorial conflicts through peaceful, democratic ways.
The debate also focused on the EU’s recent expansion from 15 to 28 members (to become 27), which some insiders, including Ms. Esther De Langue MEP, fear might have been too fast: a ‘multi-speed’ integration may be an option.
Free movement of labor: a real driver for unity and prosperity?
Freedom of movement for workers is both one of the foundation of modern Europe and a key rebalancing mechanisms underpinning the Eurozone and the common market. The moderator, Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet Professor of European Union Law and Regulation at HEC Paris, argued for two common situations where this principle comes into play: economic migrants, often moving from the high-unemployment South to worker-starved Northern cities, and posted workers, who are employed in low-wage areas of Eastern Europe to perform activities in costlier Western countries. But the system is imperfect: only 3% of workers move cross-border and posted workers are accused by populists and others of pushing salaries down. A third group of people is also negatively impacted by the inefficiency of the labor system: the refugees, often well-educated, who are fleeing war-torn regions of Africa and the Middle East in search for a better life in Europe, and who oftentimes have to wait for years before they can be allowed to work and practice their professions as doctors and engineers in Europe.
Technology, automation, and offshoring have disrupted many patterns of work. Prof. Henning Meyer, JFK Memorial Policy Fellow at Harvard’s Center for European Studies, proposes a healthcare and social activity-based Universal Income to mitigate the social effects, whereby citizens would receive a guaranteed compensation in exchange for providing services to an ever-aging and unequal population.
These reforms are critical: poverty threatens a quarter of Europeans and the most affected are children, says Oana Toiu, Romania’s Former State Secretary. The answer, she adds, cannot come only through social welfare, but rather through education, such as society-wide entrepreneurship training, to enhance people’s ability to emancipate themselves from poverty.
Education is surely the strongest driver for development, wealth, unity and ease of movement. Yet, it is still fully retained at a national, not EU, level, creating natural barriers to the free flow of people and fostering stark inequalities in the quality of education across the continent.
Why doesn’t Europe have its own Silicon Valley?
Contrary to what many may think, Europe’s startup scene is alive and thriving, as testified by many recent European successes such as Skype, the international money-transfer application TransferWise and the flight aggregator Skyscanner. Cities across Europe are effervescent with new ideas.
In many ways, Europe is a prime location for innovation: students graduate from University with virtually no debt, and generous welfare systems minimize entrepreneurial risk. Compared to American cities of innovation, the cost of living in cities is comparatively low.
The ecosystems have been helped by VC funds such as Atomico and Rocket Internet, and the emergence of new crowd-sourcing platforms. Capital availability for early funding stages is now rarely an issue. The situation changes, however, when companies raise money at later stages, as few investors are willing or capable of signing big checks.
Even with secured funding, navigating the complexity of the EU market, such as the highly demanding privacy regulation, the language and cultural differences, can be particularly burdensome for young internet companies. Yet, for a young company, cracking this complexity can be worthwhile: these same barriers to entry can become a formidable defense against any new entrants.
Who said that ideals are dead?
These are only a few of the excellent conversations that took place during the conference. But the quality and depth of the panel was not the only notable success of this event: even more remarkable was the passion and dedication shown by the organizing students, who have worked relentlessly over the past few months, for no other reason than their desire to bring these important conversations to Harvard.
At a time when many accuse new generations of being materialistic, superficial and indifferent to ideals, the work of these students demonstrates the exact opposite: young people want to get involved and have an impact while pursuing their ideals. This is even truer at a time when nationalism, hatred and populism seem to be prevailing across the world. If students’ first reaction is a feeling of powerlessness and dismay, it is quickly replaced by a desire to be involved, and this very conference is, in many ways, their answer to this desire to act and contribute to solve Europe’s most pressing questions.
Although the conference is now over, the debates must not stop. The resurgence of these populist ideas is in many ways a reaction to people’s feeling disenfranchised with the current political debate and excluded from democracy’s decision making process. The only way to reconnect, then, is to keep the debate alive and involve single member of our civic society in the process of formulating solutions.
At Harvard, the debate has started. Keeping it alive depends on you!
Roberto C. Morfino (HBS ’18) worked for five years as a consultant for many private and public sector organizations across Europe and Africa before starting his MBA. An engineer by education, he is passionate about technology and its impact on business and public policy, and in about how it can facilitate the democratic process. Originally from Nice and with French-Italian nationality, he has then developed a real passion for internationality and multiculturalism, having lived in Turin, Berkeley, Geneva, London and Boston. He is a co-chair of the 2017 European Conference at Harvard and an active member of the HBS European Club. You can follow him on Twitter @robert_morfino