Annual Focus congress
“Can we be a financial and economic giant without being a political union?” asks Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, former Dutch foreign minister and former secretary-general of NATO, at the annual congress of financial study association FS Focus last Wednesday. “The answer is not less, but more integration.”
De Hoop Scheffer mostly shares anecdotes and insights on foreign policy and geopolitics (“Whenever I met someone, I wanted to know what made them tick. Does he like fishing, golf, bunga-bunga…?”). He points out that supranational entities such as the UN and EU do not necessarily reflect the geopolitical dynamics of the 21st century, and as a result, we are seeing a shift towards more loosely organised (‘non-rules-based’) entities, such as the G20.
The various speakers at the congress, which is themed ‘Tomorrow’s Europe: Stay or Go?’, offer markedly different views of the future of Europe. Philip Vergauwen, chair of the SBE’s Accounting & Information Management department and first speaker of the day, cheerfully states: “The EU has done rather well in productivity, contrary to popular opinion, but we’ve translated it into working fewer hours; we’ve chosen to increase leisure rather than income.”
In Vergauwen’s opinion, the European economic model also softened the impact of the financial crisis. “In Europe, we didn’t really see a meltdown, and Europeans didn’t suffer the same misery as the Americans.” While Vergauwen does not deny that European cooperation is often difficult, he does not view the future as bleak: “Tensions are a symptom of change, not immobility, and democracy is not about avoiding tensions.”
Jaap van Duijn, former member of the national Social-Economic Council (SER) and prolific author and columnist, uses statistics to show which European countries are doing well and why, and what ‘best practices’ might be adopted by underperforming countries. Tellingly, he has most affinity with Sweden, which does not use the euro, and Switzerland, a non-EU state.
Van Duijn reserves harsh comments for the southern European countries currently in financial distress: “Greece had a national debt of up to 100% of its GDP – it should never have been using the euro. And based on the rules that the IMF used to impose elsewhere, it will have to leave the Eurozone. European leaders are too defensive about the euro.”
After the lunch break, the congress attendees had the opportunity to debate this issue themselves.