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The political legacy 2017

Rome, 10/11/2017 - 11/11/2017, Conference for the Aspen Junior Fellows

The focus of discussion at this year’s annual conference for the Aspen Junior Fellows was the political legacy of 2017, marked by the various outcomes of elections around Europe, the uncertain course of Brexit negotiations, the emergence of the new American administration’s policy stances, and the Catalan independence referendum. In the spirit of Aspen Institute Italia, the debate was aimed at gaining an understanding of and a future perspective on the changes underway, adopting an original approach to examining the (not always encouraging) holdovers and the (called-for or feared) sea changes that have characterized 2017.

The first session of the conference concentrated on the future of Europe. The discussion helped reveal that, over the last few years, the European Union has become the chief bone of political dissension, yet for those looking on from the outside, it still retains a glimmer of hope as the "birthplace of rights". On the other hand, Europe appears incapable of building new cohesive values after the collapse (or abandonment) of the core values enshrined in the Treaties of Rome. It was suggested that EU policies, often perceived as ineffective, appear to be compounding the effects of the crisis, with growing economic and intergenerational divides putting the future of the middle class at risk. The debate then turned to consider the limits of democracy, coming under pressure as it is from public opinion-driven polls (such as referendums) that, while allowing for quicker decisions, carry a risk of simplistic polarization. It was felt that Brexit itself may be considered as signaling the end of any pretext for Europe dodging long-awaited institutional reforms and the need to build new shared values.

The second session of the conference focused on the new transatlantic order as marked out by Europe’s situation a year on from the start of Donald Trump’s presidency. Among the many issues raised in the discussion, there was debate on the effects of globalization on the middle class, the quest for new US foreign and trade policy trajectories (and their impacts on Europe), and incentives to facilitate the international mobility of talent. Also examined was the ongoing realignment of political predilections, which is increasingly seeing 'populist' movements and traditional ruling elites set against each other. Parallel to this, the discussion returned at various junctures to the subject of the effects of new forms of media and their potential use for political ends, through manipulation but also due to the rapid spread of fake news and the difficulty of effectively regulating rapidly evolving technological tools.

Borders – of a geographic but also a symbolic nature – were the focus of deliberations during the last session of the conference. Certain naive convictions in this regard were given a reality check in light of the prevailing world where nations also compete using military and authoritarian means, while the European Union was seen as still vulnerable in the absence of a common defense strategy, the underpinnings for the development of which (starting from a politically cohesive and "strong" Europe) are lacking. Another element of concern identified was the emergence of new security needs that cannot be addressed based on the traditional frames of reference that NATO is predicated on. The challenges on the table were seen as including migration and integration, fostering development in countries of emigration, and security cooperation. In this respect, it was stressed that international cooperation is still possible and desirable, as can be observed from the fact that in certain complex spheres, such as in space and in the depths of the sea, competition between nations has given way to effective and successful collaborative efforts.