Interview with Ziga Turk, Secretary General of the Reflection Group on the Future of Europe

Ziga Turk «The EU will be bigger and stronger 20-30 years from now»

Ziga Turk, Secretary General of the Reflexion Group on the Future of Europe, about the up-coming role of the European Union, taking the EU for granted and the importance of risk-taking.

You are the Secretary General of the Reflexion Group on the Future of Europe, chaired by Felipe Gonzales. You will report to the European Council next year about your insight. How will Europe be different from now in 10 years?
The group has not adopted any conclusions yet and I speak only in my own name. Someone said, rather than predict the future we should shape it. This is even more true for politics. Personally I would like to see Europe act more in line with the fact, that the EU27 is the largest economy in the world and shape the world according to the values and principles Europe believes in, such as freedom, solidarity, rule of law, care for nature and humanity.
What are the biggest challenges for EU and European Governments in the next 10 years?
The key goal for any society is to maintain employment and keep improving the quality of life. This has never been easy. The ABCD of the key challenges developed societies face are A-abundance of industrial goods and services, B-BRICs and globalisation, C-climate change and energy and D-demography and ageing of the population.
How would you describe the future role of the Eastern European countries?
Integration of former communist countries is one of the major historic achievements of the European Union. While the older generation in the West is gratefull that the EU created peace on the Rhine, in the East the EU is also seen as a garantor of democracy and human rights. The younger generation in East and West takes the EU for granted and just wants to see practical results. The related politics are not so historic, but just as important as the work of the founding fathers of the EU and those in the East and West that made the reunification of the continent possible. 

Where does and will Slovenia stand?
Slovenia has been the richest and most open country behind the iron curtain and remains the rishers at 91% of the EU average. Small countries have a particular motive to be pro-European and to support Brussels in its role of making sure all countries are treated equally. Small countries gain from comon market, from common policies (if they are sound), learn from its peers etc. On the other hand, I think small countries should be aware that if we want Europe to speak with a single voice more often, the sacrifice will have to come from the big member states.

In your blog you are rather outspoken about the Lisbon strategy, which should be implemented by 2010 and position Europe as the most competitive and dynamic economic environment in the world. Is Europe anywhere close to that target?
Without any doubt, progress has been made. Many countries implemented structural changes, reformed the higher education sector, modernised R&D institutions and improved the links between academia and the industry. We did not reach the goal, but in many cases we were moving into the right direction. In the core of an innovative society are people who take new initiatives, who are original and daring to explore new ways. Whole society has to be open to noveties, risk-taking, it has to champion explorers not home-stayers. Some people would do new things, only if they see a safety net. Some will not do anything unless forced to.

Is there still time for a major change in the program that was set in motion in 2000?
Lisbon strategy was 2000-2010. So now is the time to define it for the next decade.

You were impressed by the risks – looking at the standard of technology – that astronauts took to fly to the moon or explorers like Columbus, when he travelled into the unknown not even in a ship, but a boat. You criticize the lack of risk taking in today's world. Where do we need to take risks?
These are extreme cases. These people wanted to take risks, and a war, even a cold one, is a huge motive for a state to take action beyond providing butter for its citizens. Today it is considered a winning policy if the governemnt would prevent people from having to take risks. Some would even like it to take decisions for them. By doing so you exlude a huge number of brains from decision making. Brains which have unprecedented access to information and knowledge on the internet.

In the financial sector certain risks were not taken into consideration or underestimated. The financial crisis turned into an economic crisis. Where do you draw the line? When are risks worth taking?
The financial crisis occurred because risk was being insured, shared. A system was created where those who took a risk would reap big rewards if things turned out OK, but would not be hurt much if things went bad. This happened on a global scale – for example China took almost no risk when investing in US papers. All the risk was with the people, who were playing with that money within the western economy. The system should be such, that clearly encourages risk, but not too much of it. The saying, no risk no win, is true. But all players in the market should have similar access to information, so that the risks could be calculated. 

Especially in the United States of America, but more and more in Europe as well, people seem to be living in a culture of fear and complaint. Is there a way out?
The crisis is taking its toll. But it seems we have seen the bottom of it and the optimism will return.

Is the European Union in its current form a good thing?
It's the best we have. And we could use the institutional EU tools much more.

Some doom-sayers predict, that the EU won't exist anymore 20-30 years from now.
Some doom mongers predict the end of the world in 2012. The EU will be bigger and stronger 20-30 years from now. Simply because, relatively to the rest of the world, the population size, economic and technological power of even the larger member states will be smaller and smaller.
Communication technologies have revolutionized the 20th century. What technologies will transform the 21st? Which part will Europe play in this progress?
ITC is empowering the individual. I like to say that the majority of smart, educated people do not work for the government any more. It was not always so. Just a few hundreds years back most of the literate people worked for the government. The way of political decision making and the socio-economic system has to acknowledge this fact. By empowering the individual, rely on her knowledge and creativity. Open, liberal, entrepreneurial societies will make better use of ITC than closely controlled ones. The market for this is global, but a solid domestic market helps. Unless the EU can create a common market for the creative digital economy, we may have inventions like MP3, but the market exploitation will happen in the US, like with the iTunes. 

What can we look forward to hearing in Lucerne?
My view of the future goals could summarized in «From coal and steel to sun and bytes».

Žiga Turk is a Secretary General of the Reflection Group on the Future of Europe and Professor and Chair in Construction Informatics at the University of Ljubljana. His academic interests include construction informatics, grid computing, design communication, philosophy of conceptual modeling and CAD. He held graduate and undergraduate courses in Ljubljana, Istanbul, Zagreb and Stockholm. In 2007 and 2008 Dr. Turk was a Minister for Growth in the government of Slovenia and national coordinator for the Lisbon Strategy. His political interest include development, growth, creativity, entrepreneurship, open access to knowledge, open innovation, renewable energy, r&d policy etc.

The Transformation of Europe - Future Challenges of the EU and the European States
Ziga Turk, Secretary General of the Reflection Group on the Future of Europe

Thursday, October 15, 2009; 11.10h
Culture and Convention Centre KKL Luzern