The main topic of this year’s EFC Annual Assembly is a rather contemplative one: By “Rethinking Europe” the participants have been invited to step out of the daily business for three days, to debate a challenging, complicated and of course still unsolved puzzle – one could imagine a gathering of experts bigger but similar to the enthusiastic round of chess players under their umbrellas next to one of the conference venues in the pouring rain of Sarajevo.
But it turned out that for some of us just thinking is not enough. Was it the location of this year’s conference? The wonderful town of Sarajevo in the heart of Europe that suffered so much and – 20 years after the war – still waits for full recovery? Was it the never-ending rain that drowned the hosting country Bosnia and Herzegovina in the biggest flood since more than 120 years? The fact that so many people lost their homes or even lives during these days when Europe’s wealthiest foundations came together in the proximate neighbourhood, strangely uncoupled from this disaster? Did this contrasts create a little discomfort and made some of us more emotional than usually in a seminar environment?
Anyway, impatience was sometimes a visible sentiment in plenaries, sessions, and Q&As that spiced the discussions. You could, for example, hear a slight tone of anger in her voice when Timea Junghaus, director of Gallery 8 for Contemporary Roma Art – a term which by itself breaks already many stereotypes – said in the session on ‘Social Inclusion in Central and Eastern Europe: Myth or Reality’ that in the last 25 years the situation of the Roma minority didn’t only not have improved but has turned radically to the worse in all EU countries not only in Hungary. She accused public institutions all over Europe to still keep up racist systems that would exclude minorities from education and many other fields where more inclusion is necessary.
It was Janusz Reiter, Director of the Center for International Relations, who mentioned it explicitly for the first time at the opening plenary. Moderator Jackie Davis asked the panel what foundations could do to support peace in Europe. Janusz Reiter’s answer was not a strategic advice. Actually, he was urging the foundations: “Be in time! Hurry up! Be fast than the government if you want to reach out to people!” Whatever you want to do: do it now!
The current situation in Ukraine was a topic in many debates. The efc published a statement saying that the European Foundations express their solidarity with Ukraine. Haki Abazi from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation for the Western Balkans asked at the Opening Plenary, why anybody should believe that the European Union will take action in favour of the people of the Ukraine as they failed doing anything for Syria and in similar conflicts before. There are many declarations, but where is the action?
The Plenary on political governance investigated mainly the European Union and the threat of a remarkable success for populist parties in the upcoming elections. A strong populist wing in the EU parliament will be the result of the rise of inequalities all over the place, explained Ivan Vejvoda from the The German Marshall Fund of the United States. The former director of the Balkan Trust for Democracy identified the dissatisfaction of people of all nationalities with unjust societies as the main reason for the success of populist movements and parties that are so dangerous for democracy “who claim to know the truth with a big T”. The problem: mainstream politics doesn’t seem to have an answer to impatient citizens.
An obviously very impatient citizen was sharing the panel with him. Jeta Xharra, co-founder of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, was the angry woman of the debate who declared further European enlargement a simple necessity. “And it is coming much to late!“ To many of the present (Western) European foundations her analysis sounded probably provocative if not naïve or even bizarre. Statements such as “only by cutting all trade relations with Russia the EU countries can take a credible stand in the Ukraine conflict” might lack a realistic assessment of EU realities. But Jeta Xharra showed us that living and working for a long time under very difficult economic, political and social conditions makes you not only impatient but also more courageous, it makes you think in all possible directions. From this perspective, impatience can be a sometimes productive feeling for our work.
Maribel Königer, ERSTE Stiftung.