‘Foundations and Europe: Think, Act, Change’ was the title of the European Foundation Centre’s second Autumn Assembly, held in Brussels on 12 November. A majority of Europeans are sceptical about the European Union and what it can offer, said Karin Jestin, Secretary General of Fondation Lombard Odier, who chaired the meeting. What can foundations do to support the European project? Tellingly, less than a third of those in the room rated themselves as 6 or above, on a scale of 1-10, in relating to EU institutions.
According to keynote speaker European Commissioner Michel Barnier, the right decisions have been taken to extract Europe from the sovereign debt crisis, but he admitted that in the last 15-20 years we have perhaps forgotten the human aspects of Europe. The European project is fragile due to the crisis, he said, with a worrying distance between Europe and its citizens. Countries tend to become more protectionist in a crisis, he said. If this carries on, the first victim will be the single market. Foundations can play an important role in linking citizens with EU political structures, he said, working ‘not for the citizens but with them’.
Some ways in which foundations might do this were put forward in the following panel discussion on playing for ‘Team Europe’. Katherine Watson of the European Cultural Foundation talked about the Unconventional Summit, convened by members of NEF (Network of European Foundations) at the end of August. The aim was to come up with 50 ‘seeds’ for the future of Europe, drawing on scientists, mathematicians, politicians, environmentalists and younger people, not just the usual suspects. In 2010 a majority of Germans no longer supported the European project, said Bernhard Lorenz of Mercator Stiftung. Hence the formation of ‘Engaged Europeans’, a group of 11 German foundations pledged to take action on the European project. Their first major joint project was a media and advocacy campaign supported by three foundations entitled ‘I want Europe’ (‘Ich will Europa’). The film of that name shows politicians, celebrities and ordinary people reiterating the message that Europe is good for Germany.
Are foundations well placed to play this sort of role? A delegate from Poland made the point that foundations there still don’t have a good name, while a delegate from Spain felt that messages from foundations on Europe lacked legitimacy because they are not elected representatives. Lorenz agreed that foundations can be challenged if they go out and advocate for something, but their strength is that they can play the role of convenor and motivator.
Another issue is whether such initiatives will produce concrete results. Are they just too airy-fairy? A project like the Unconventional Summit is ‘only as good as the next steps’, Watson admitted, but in her view many practical ideas had come from the NEF weekend, which would be taken forward by both foundations and civil society players who were present.
The meeting also saw strong support for the European Foundation Statute from Commissioner Barnier. Foundations are ‘at the heart of the European economy’, he said, supporting social entrepreneurship and as employers of more than 1 million citizens. He has therefore championed the Statute, which would allow entities to register as European foundations, thus facilitating foundation activities across different countries. A final decision on the Statute is likely to be taken by 2014, and Barnier called on foundations to use their contacts within the relevant national ministries to gain support for the Statute.
Ludwig Forrest of the King Baudouin Foundation also made an eloquent case for the Statute. Five times in the previous week, in his work as a philanthropy adviser, registering as a European foundation would have been the right answer for his clients. One example was a Scandinavian philanthropist wanting to create a project involving ‘garden of love’ exhibitions in different countries in Europe. Without a statute, some of these initiatives will never start or will be much less effective, he said. ‘In today’s world we can’t afford to miss opportunities.’ He too urged foundations to put pressure on their national representatives to support the statute.
The Assembly ended with the inaugural Raymond Georis Lecture, delivered by Gottfried Wagner, director of the European Cultural Foundation from 2002 to 2009. He too made a plea for ‘more smart Europe in the face of the current crisis’. In 2005, he had argued the need for a ‘cultural project Europe’.‘Citizens have pulled the emergency brake,’ he said. ‘The train was running too fast, too far and nobody knew the destination.’ But this had failed. ‘Europe is not an affair of the heart,’ he said in 2008, ‘nor do people believe that it delivers.’ And it may be worse today.
For Wagner, the fundamental key to change lies in ‘the smart transformation of our economic system, and in the undoubted necessity to transform its governance … The second challenge is the transformation of our democratic governance in Europe, from national to transnational participation and control, legitimate, credible, and effective.’
The role of foundations? Foundations must approach this as ‘potentially influential political animals – intelligently and freely reasoning stakeholders of the public good’. In concluding, he urged foundations for three to five years to form coalitions and take a strong political stance on Europe. No one expects foundations to reinvent capitalism and democracy, but failure to look at transformation will be seen as falling short. ‘Can an independent third sector free enough capacity to help reshape the new Europe?’
The Autumn Assembly is apparently going to be a permanent fixture in the EFC calendar, ‘but we are still looking to improve the format’, said EFC chief executive Gerry Salole.
Caroline Hartnell is editor of Alliance magazine