Salzburg Trilogue 2012: Not Much Room for Economic Growth
Participants at this year’s international Salzburg Trilogue agreed: finding concrete strategies for achieving economic growth that is social, inclusive and sustainable is the main challenge facing policymakers, the business community and civil society. Held on August 17 and organized by the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, the gathering brought together academic, political, business and social leaders to examine whether and how economic growth can be structured in a way that is socially equitable and environmentally sound. The 30 attendees from 16 European, Asian, African and North and South American countries participated in discussions that were led by former Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel.
Political figures at the event included the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, Austrian Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy and UNIDO Director-General Kandeh K. Yumkella, as well as the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Georgia. The Bertelsmann Stiftung was represented by Liz Mohn, vice-chair of its Executive Board, Aart De Geus, the foundation’s chairman and CEO, and Dr. Jörg Dräger, member of its Executive Board.
Participants at the event agreed that current economic models are not sustainable over the long term. A survey carried out on behalf of the Bertelsmann Stiftung shortly before the gathering took place suggested that many people in Germany and Austria share this belief. According to the survey, respondents in the two countries have little confidence that policymakers will be able to come up with effective solutions to this dilemma. At the same time, however, Germans and Austrians strongly believe that new, more sustainable paths to growth must be found. “Sustainability, the environment and social concerns are more important to people than politicians realize,” the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s CEO said, commenting on the results to the German newspaper Die Zeit.
Carried out by market research firm TNS Emnid, the survey reveals that, in light of the euro crisis, eight out of ten Germans and Austrians feel that the economic system as it stands has reached its limits. Only one in three Germans and one in four Austrians think that the market can regulate itself.
Prior to the gathering, seven highly regarded think tanks from Brazil, China, India, Russia, South Africa, Europe and the United States developed responses to the question of how growth can be made sustainable, then presented and discussed their ideas at a pre-conference meeting. The subsequent discussion at the Salzburg Trilogue itself made clear that the current economic system is inequitable, chronically unstable and detrimental to the environment. Economic growth, however, continues to be seen in many countries as necessary for ensuring political and social stability.
Participants at the event also noted that as new possibilities are identified for achieving socially and ecologically sound growth, Western nations cannot use environmental concerns as a reason for preventing developing and newly industrialized countries from making use of their natural resources such as oil and gas. Instead, they said, EU member states and other developed nations need to help less advanced countries – those in Africa, for example – deploy their energy resources efficiently. Several attendees pointed out that in countries like India, where most homes still lack electricity, conditions can be found that differ greatly from those in Europe.
The participants therefore called for a switch from a growth-centered mindset to one that focuses on developing in a way that gives greatest priority to combating poverty and promoting education, while ensuring access to clean energy. This, they said, will require a new approach in the political sphere; examples, however, can be found around the world demonstrating that it is in fact possible to be happy while living with less. According to the attendees, what are needed are laws that provide an incentive to conserve natural resources such as energy supplies and water, along with technologies that recycle those resources. In addition, they noted that concrete timeframes and standards must finally be put into place on a global scale if specific goals are to be achieved at all, since the differences in culture and economic development among countries are considerable, making it difficult to develop a common agenda for addressing challenges. “We need solutions that can achieve growth in a way that is responsible and sustainable. That means we not only have to be willing to implement specific reforms, but also to undergo real change,” said Mohn, the Bertelsmann Stiftung Executive Board’s vice-chair.
According to many of those at the conference, multilateral organizations have increasingly shown themselves to be ill suited as platforms for achieving international consensus. The participants therefore called for the creation of a “coalition of the willing” consisting of governments, businesses and institutions from civil society that can show the way, bringing their vision and experience to bear on a political level.
Even if Europe and the world have not yet overcome the current financial crisis, it is still important at events such as the Salzburg Trilogue to begin “taking a step forward and working with experts from around the globe to pool the creative potential needed for the future,” the Austrian foreign minister said, speaking to journalists. “We will need these creative ideas even after the crisis has passed.”