Interview conducted by Hannah Rittmeyer from the “Becoming Bruxellois from Afar” project
This article is part of a series of interviews conducted by a group of Groningen students as part of their Eurocompetence II project. The interviewees all work in Brussels institutions and were asked questions related to the Euroculture’s 2020 IP topic: “A sustainability Europe? Society, politics and culture in the anthropocene”. Here, Hannah Rittmeyer asked Dr. Hardy Ostry of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) about his perspective on democratic sustainability, particularly about whether or not the EU faces has a democratic deficit and if the current crisis is a threat or a chance for democracy in the EU.
Hannah Rittmeyer: Could you please provide us with a short overview of your organization and its work in Brussels?
Hardy Ostry: With more than 200 projects in over 120 countries and its headquarters in Sankt Augustin near Bonn and Berlin, the KAS is a worldwide operating institution. 16 offices in Germany alone maintain various projects. The foundation has been named after the first Federal Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. His principles are the guidelines for of our work. As a political foundation, we nationally and internationally campaign for freedom and justice through political education. Our main focus lies in on cooperation and development towards the promotion of European unification, the consolidation of democracy and the intensification of transatlantic relations. Furthermore, the foundation offers scholarships, not only to German Citizens and has a prestigious literary award. The European Office, located in Brussels, has a team of 11 people. As a consulting agency, we analyse political action and develop scientific reports. In particular, KAS Brussels is responsible for following and processing events at the European level. Our main work lies in organizing events to different (current) topics, networking, reporting, and serving as a melting point for visitor groups from all over the world.
HR: What is your position and responsibility in the KAS in Brussels? Could you tell us how your career path led you to your current position?
HO: As head of the European Office of the KAS, I represent our foundation with regard to the European Institutions, NATO as well as the Benelux countries. At the same time, I coordinate our activities and projects together with our team. We always try to identify topics that affect people from different political fields and have the potential to deepen European integration. I keep a close eye on what’s going on in Brussels as well as in Berlin since we also try to better connect the decision- makers of the European and German capital. Especially in these times, it is of utmost importance to keep our networks alive. Consequently, I am in close contact with our office in Berlin, the European KAS offices abroad, the European institutions themselves and other Think Tanks in Brussels. My personal career started almost twenty years ago in Benin, Western Africa, where I worked for a regional programme on political education. Later on, I was posted in Tunisia, Jordan, Berlin and for since three years I have been in charge of our Brussels chapter.
HR: How is the topic of sustainability, especially of democratic sustainability, relevant in your field?
The KAS has set itself the task of promoting cross-border peace and democracy. Sustainability is and will be one of the most important pillars of our work, especially with regard to our collaborations, as we strive for long-term cooperation with reliable partners. For the European Union, which has arisen out of complicated circumstances and has experienced challenging times in its development, sustainable decisions are indispensable for the future. We see how fragile democracy can be, all the more fragile in a confederation of states with different opinions and historical heritages. Therefore, to maintain the hard-won democracy, willingness to compromise is necessary. Of course, also with regard to the environment. As part of the European Green Deal, we are currently following the developments of the EU Commission for a new plan towards a more sustainable economy. In times of Corona the Green Deal will be shaped differently, but I am sure that now it will not only be an important part of European Politics, but a successful contribution in some parts to a new Sustainable Social Market Economy.
HR: (To what extent) does the European Union have a democratic deficit in your opinion?
The EU certainly has deficits: Monetary union, Schengen, migration, crisis management, lack of common defence … etc. However, what must be clear, is that the EU in its current form has not even existed for 30 years and is still in a phase of self-discovery. Somehow European Integration is always a work in progress, therefore I guess it’s not always helpful to blame this project with regards to its deficits. True: innovation, faster decision making, clear formulations and demands, and being close to the citizens – this is where Europe, amongst other things, wants to improve and the European Commission is dedicated to this work. Europe must take a more united stand, particularly in times of crisis, and take a much clearer position on the international level. On the other hand, we should not overload our expectations: the EU is not a state, it is still an association of states, historically unique in its form.
HR: Do you think the corona-crisis could be a threat to democracy in Europe, e.g. if one looks at Hungary right now or is it rather a chance for Europe to get closer together?
I would not see the Corona crisis as a threat to a sustainable democracy. The corona crisis is special in that it poses a threat to human health. Unlike the migration crisis, in which people pose a danger, or in the economic crisis, in which fiscal systems and thus sustainable prosperity were endangered, governments and people together fight against an invisible virus. Depending on how the countries manage the crisis, the population’s reputation can even grow. The crisis can rather be seen as an opportunity for closer cooperation. Governments of countries like Hungary use the situation to take critical decisions, which other countries and the EU are not able to follow. The EU continues observing the situation and is ready to take consequences if necessary. Where I see at least a critical question or challenge as far as the political implications of Corona are concerned, is the question of system competition in a global sense. This question was raised very early at the beginning of the crises with regard to the capability of states to act; the issue will stay on the agenda and become even more important during the time of recovery. But I am not afraid. Our democracies will prove resilience and effectiveness, although we still have difficult times ahead.
HR: What are the biggest challenges the EU (and/ or the world) faces in terms of democratic sustainability?
One of the biggest European and global challenges will be dealing with the digital transformation and all its implications. Information is the currency of the new age and it can circle the globe within a few seconds. The Internet opens opportunities that can have both positiveboth, positive and negative consequences. Dealing with incorrect information or information, that is not very widely proofed, is a big challenge and populists know how to catch the attention of different communities. Data security is probably the key term for a coordinated cyber world. Likewise, education in dealing with the World Wide Web should begin at an early stage in life. As life is already partly happening online, politics must also take this area of life into account to achieve and maintain sustainable democracy.
HR: Where do you see the EU in five years?
Since we still face a lot of external challenges, the further development of the EU is not only up to us. But given a unique crisis like Corona, it has to be our aim to emerge strongly from the crisis, stronger than we were before. I hope that not only we will have left the Corona crisis far behind us in 5 years, but also that we will have learned our lessons and found another way to shape our daily lives. I see the EU as strong as now, possibly more innovative, more targeted.
Picture: European Parliament plenary chamber, Brussels, Belgium. “For the European Union, which has arisen out of complicated circumstances and has experienced challenging times in its development, sustainable decisions are indispensable for the future.” – Dr. Hardy Ostry
Credits: Diamond geezer, Flickr