Tag Archives: European Union

Stretching the Overton window: the need for (more) radical reform in the language of leading institutions

Large, venerable institutions like the United Nations or the European Union prefer to use understated language. When discussing possible reform, they tend to deploy expressions like “adjustment” or “course correction”. They are incrementalists, not firebrands.

This is even more true when economic reforms are concerned. As long as I have been intellectually active, economics has been an intellectually and politically conservative discipline. The mainstream economists’ idea of policy was the identification and correction of market failures. Well-functioning markets automatically deliver the best possible outcome for all.

In the past few years, though, I have started to see increasingly strong language – already widely used in the corridors, mind you – making it into high-profile official documents. I choose to interpret this as a harbinger of hope: as multiple crises bring our societies under increasing strain, policy makers realize that the old ways of thinking are just not going to cut it. The good old Overton window has served our institutions well, helping to guarantee stability. But now stability has become impossible; business as usual is setting the world on fire, quite literally. The Overton window needs to be blown wide open.

And so the language is changing: the aforementioned large, venerable institutions are now calling for a lot more radicality. In this short post I want to note the expression I have noticed. If you know of any more, please let me know, it may help people advocating for bolder thinking, as it is already helping me. Brace for interesting times.

What institutions are calling for (in rough chronological order)

  1. Green New Deal (US Democratic Party).
  2. Green transition (EU)
  3. Just transitions (everybody, from the EU to South Africa
  4. Systems transformation (UNDP, 2022-2025 Strategic plan)
  5. Transformative shifts (UNEP, strategic plan 2022-2025)
  6. Systemic change (IPCC, Assessment Report 6, Summary for Policymakers)
  7. Structural transformation (OECD, but I seem to have lost the reference. Can anyone help me?
  8. Extraordinary turnarounds (Club of Rome, Earth4All report

Captured: how deep the European Union lost its way on copyright

Many people, myself included, have followed with great interest the last year’s event as the European Union worked its way through a new directive on copyright, which is likely to have many negative consequences on fair use and the free flow of information on the Internet (included information that has no copyright implications). This is no place to summarize what happened: you can find many great accounts online, like the blog of Pirate MEP Julia Reda. What I found most striking is how no one who had (1) a shred of competence in Internet matters and/or economics and (2) was not set to benefit directly from it, supported the directive. Academics. Civil liberty activists. Large American tech companies. Small European tech companies. No. One. But the copyright lobby pushed really hard, as revealed by the EU lobbying registry. Out of the 25 organizations that held the most meetings on copyright with the Commission in 2018, 23 represented copyright holders (source: Corporate Europe). The vote went ahead, and the lobbyists won, as they tend to do.

Just as the battle for the final vote in April 2019 raged on, I decided to visit the House of European History in Brussels. This is a history museum with a continental perspective, set up as an initiative of the European Parliament. At some point, I got fascinated by an Italian 1930s political propaganda manifesto from the fascist era, so I took out my phone to snap a picture. A steward informed me that taking picture was not allowed.

This piqued my curiosity. Why would it not be allowed? The whole point of the European Parliament investing in this project is for as many Europeans as possible to get acquainted with their common past. Visitors taking pictures and resharing them on social media (or showing them to their families at home) are helping the House of European History fulfill its mission. So I asked the steward “Why is that, sir?”. He could not give an answer, but insisted I was not allowed to take picture. At this point, I replied that if he could not give me a valid reason to comply, I would just refuse to obey him. He went looking for his manager.

The manager was not much help. He, too, was “just obeying orders”. Ironic, I know: we were standing in the section on the totalitarian atrocities. He advised me to put a written complaint to the museum itself. So I went home, and did. And asked again my question:

The House of European History wants to showcase to Europeans their common legacy. We are Europeans, so this our legacy too. Why are we not allowed to share it with my fellow humans? In fact, why are we not encouraged to do so?

The answer came a few days later. The gist of it was this: several of the exhibits are on loan from others museums and institutions. These institutions have different copyright policies, depending on national legislation and other factors. This gives rise to such a tangle of vetos, restrictions and other hindrances that management decided to cover its back and simply forbid taking pictures of anything at all.

In the age of Instagram and Facebook, by this decision the House of European History is crippling its own communicative potential. This is stupid, coward and wasteful of European taxpayer money. And no one tell me it is “rewarding creators”: the person who had designed the fascist manifesto that fascinated me had likely been paid for his work back in 1934, and passed away since. A much better policy would be to only show exhibits that are firmly in the commons.

A month later, the European Parliament went on to approve the even more restrictive copyright directive that right holders lobbyists wanted. Never mind that copyright legislation in Europe is already so restrictive that its own projects cannot get firm traction because of it. This, I think, goes to show how deep European institutions have become lost in trying to accommodate business. Accommodating business (or anyone) is not bad in itself; but it does become bad if, to do it, you lose sight of your strategic aims.

I am a staunch European federalist, but this stuff is impossible to defend. European elections are coming up: I have pledged to outvote candidates and parties who supported this directive. If, like me, you care about this stuff, you can find more information about which candidates to blacklist on https://pledge.eu.

Photo: House of European History. Sue me.

The globalist. A route for the 21st century

I have the honor of having been invited to teach (if that’s the right word) at this year’s Salzburg Global Seminar.

This turns out to have been founded in 1947 by Clemens Heller, a Harvard student native of Salzburg, together with two American colleagues. The idea was to

create at least one small center in which young Europeans from all countries, and of all political convictions, could meet for a month in concrete work under favorable living conditions, and to lay the foundation for a possible permanent center of intellectual discussion in Europe.

This discussion was urgent. Europe lay in ruins. Austria itself, like Germany, was occupied by the Allied troops, and dismembered into four zones: the American, British, French and Soviet Zone. It was not at all clear what path Europe would take. Recent history showed that World Wars could and did ride on each other’s wake – only twenty years of increasingly tense “peace” had separated World War I from World War II. It was becoming clear that Western and Central Europeans were no longer the masters of their own destiny. The Soviet Union and the United States both wanted to shape Europe’s future. Europeans, demoralized and exhausted, could hardly stop them.

But there was one thing they could do. They could use whatever little space was afforded by the competition between the two superpowers to pull together, forge a common vision for the Old Continent, and build the capacity to implement it. This was the Salzburg Seminar’s mission: “a Marshall Plan of the mind”, the ability to imagine a different future as a critical element of recovery. This plan was targeted at young people, with the potential to become leaders in postwar Europe and America.

The mission succeeded. Intellectual stimuli were off the scale: Margaret Mead and Wassily Leontief were among the teachers of the 1947 seminar. Over the decades, as Europe grew more peaceful, integrated, and prosperous, the Seminar shifted from a Euro-American focus to a global one. It is now one of several world-class leadership programs.

We find ourselves at a juncture where places like the Salzburg Global Seminar might look like yesterday’s news. We are informed that nationalism, nativism, exceptionalism, de-humanising of political adversaries, even racism – all concepts that Clemens Heller might have thought buried in the rubble of Third Reich – are back. We are told the “perceptions” of our fellow citizens are as important, and as capable of shaping our world, than the facts of science. The narrative of supremacy by bloodright is powerful (padroni a casa nostra, “lords of our own house”, is the slogan of Italian xenophobic party Lega Nord. It is nonsensical in so many ways that I don’t want to even start breaking it down, but it does work). And a scapegoat is always handy in politics. So, this is the new normal, or at least part of it.

I will not stand for this. It is, simply, nonsense. We have huge problems to solve: safeguard the global environment before the Anthropocene wipes out the last tigers and blackens the coral reefs. Rejuvenate our democracies. Build decent capacity in government (don’t get me started). Steer global population down towards a long-term sustainable level. Figure out a way to live in a world with no “jobs”, and engineer a symbiosis with AIs. Preserve, extend and cherish the glorious tapestry of Earth’s cultures.

The task at hand is enormous. We need everyone, every last person who wants to be a full participant and accepts to contribute to humanity’s adventure on this blue planet, our home.  People, almost all of them, are willing to step in as full participants, and work, and love, and learn from each other. So, with the obvious individual exceptions, I want nation states, border guards, police, clergy, TV anchormen and any bloody idiot that thinks they can make them feel unwelcome to stay out of their way. Inclusion, abolition of borders, freedom of trade and movement are better for everyone. You’d think Europeans, of all people, would know this. Clemens Heller did.

And so do I. I am a globalist. I want to build webs of friendship and love and business partnerships, and I want these webs to span the globe. I want to build global knowledge, to spread far and wide. This is our birthright as humans: contribute to the future of the species, and the planet it inhabits. It is a global goal, and needs a global scope. I vow to oppose any political movement that seeks to prevent well-intentioned people from everywhere to work together towards this goal.

In Europe, this means supporting more, deeper, more irreversible integration; and welcome any transfer of sovereignty from States to the European Union, as long as it can be shown to be beneficial to European citizens, especially the least privileged. It also means supporting welcoming new members into the Union. I vow to do those things, too.

Today, the Salzburg Global Seminar is right where I want to be.