The Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE) gathered at Brussels’ Steigenberger Wiltcher’s Hotel on March 22 to take part in a landmark summit aimed at mapping out the road ahead as Europe enters into a period where tough questions

Dubbed “A Future for Europe” the summit’s participants took part in a series of panel discussions in front of a live audience where they addressed some of Europe’s pressing political, economic and social issues.

Jan Zahradil, ACRE’s President and current Czech politician,  opened the gathering saying the European Union stands at a crossroads in recent history and that ACRE’s message to the Member States was that no one in the alliance wanted “no EU, but instead wants “Europe” to be defined in civilisational terms rather than through the organisational framework that makes up the institutions of the EU. He stressed that the concept of Europe should not be used interchangeably with “the EU” or the belief in “a more-closer union”.

Reiterating Zahradil’s comments was keynote speaker Valeri Simeonov, the Deputy Prime Minister of Bulgaria, who said the members of ACRE are “not Eurosceptic” for the simple sake of being confrontational, but in fact, had a deep appreciation for “all that we have received from Europe”.

Romania’s former Prime Minister Victor Ponta was the odd-man out as a Social Democrat at a gathering of conservatives and reformists but eloquently made his case that political rivals can come together in a constructive and enthusiastic manner when united by a belief that Europe needs to undergo fundamental reform to guarantee the future of the bloc. “I believe that Europe and the European Union must remain and continue to be the political structure of the future.” But warned that the EU’s institutional core needed to become more transparent and more in touch with the common European citizen to guarantee the respect and relevance it needs to act effectively.

Ponta, Simeonov, and Zahradil all referred to their respective countries’ 20th-century histories as nations who were once part of the former Communist Eastern Bloc and warned that the EU’s bloated and often opaque bureaucratic organs risk becoming analogues of the hated Communist apparatchiks that made the day-to-day existence of most East Europeans unbearable for the better part of five decades.

Moderated by the Secretary-General of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group at the Committee of the Regions, Neva Sadikoglu-Novaky, who was joined by the Director of New Direction Italia, Daniele Capezzone; Bulgarian MEP Angel Dzhambazki, the Vice-Chair of IMRO; former UK government minister James Wharton; and German MEP Bernd Koelmel, a member of the Budgets Committee.  Held in the round and with the speakers sitting in close proximity to one another, the first panel focused on rebuilding trust in governance and democratic accountability in an attempt to create a new political equilibrium for Europe.

The panel participants were unanimous in their belief that the EU needed to act in a more transparent manner with Commission “acting only as the executive body of the EU”. The further re-iterated the need for the EU to refrain from encroaching on the security structure that is currently guaranteed by the NATO military alliance.

Shankar Singham, the director of the International Trade and Competition Unit and director of Economic Studies at the Legatum Institute led a discussion on creating inclusive business and economic models that work across Europe with AT&T’s Director of Public Affairs for Europe, Alberto Zilio, Archie Ravishankar, an Australian investment banker and the CEO of online banking tech company COGNI, Mastercard’s Head of Government and Public Policy, Mikael Conny Svensson; and Stephanie Finck-Piccin, the leader of Salesforce’s Government Affairs and Public Policy efforts in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

While discussing Europe’s future prospects for investors and future businesses, the panel emphasized that the EU needs to be a strong market that promotes innovation and does not interfere will competition and entrepreneurial initiatives due to over-regulation. The panel agreed that a close cooperation between policymakers and businesses is needed as “lawmakers tend to have a limited understanding of the role of business owners and investors when it comes to a policy objective”, particularly in regards to regulation.

The panel also agreed that Europe needed to further strengthen its trans-Atlantic business ties with the United States, despite US President Donald J. Trump’s protectionist and isolationist policies.

Striking a critical but conciliatory tone, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki opened his keynote speech by emphasising the need for a reboot of the EU in order for the bloc to deal with the current challenges that it faces. “We need a new vision for Europe”.

Morawiecki, one of the least Eurosceptic members of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group – said the current sentiment across the whole of the European Union, which has led to a rise in citizens’ apathy towards the Eurocrats in Brussels and the rise of populism on a national level, could be traced to a sense of frustration and the feeling that Europeans feel that the bureaucracy of the EU’s key institutions drown out their common concerns.

“The main step the EU has to take in addressing the population’s feeling of injustice and inequity – which partially explains Brexit – is that we need appropriate solutions…we need to address the nervousness and anxiety of people,” Morawiecki told the audience, while also adding, “the EU does a poor job of providing a speedy regulatory response to the changing economic and social realities in Europe…Those who are not qualified or proficient for the digital age are then pushed to the margins of society. Europe cannot have ‘fly-over’ zones, a reference to an American term for whole regions of a country that are regarded as less socially significant or economically viable by the urban elite.

Morawiecki closed his comments by urging the participants to build a more inclusive European Union that will take into consideration the full range of concerns from across the social spectrum.

“We need a solidarity-based EU,” said Morawiecki in his closing remarks.

New Direction Italia’s Daniele Capezzone later returned to the conference following a keynote speech from Danish MEP Anders Vistisen to lead a roundtable discussion on paving the way for a new monetary union. Cappezone was joined by German MEP Bernd Lucke, a member of the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee; Max Andersson, a member of the Legal Affairs Committee for the European Parliament; and the Head of Open Europe’s Brussels office, Pieter Cleppe.

Canada’s Minister of State, Michelle Rempel, addressed the summit as a keynote speaker, providing a North American perspective on the challenges Europe and the rest of the world’s Western democracies are currently facing when dealing with refugees issues.

With Russia’s continued campaign to interfere with the Western democratic institutions, security and defence issues were common themes throughout the conference. Retired career US Foreign Service Officer Alec Mally moderated a panel that included Polish MEP Anna Fotyga, the Chair of the European Parliament’s Security and Defence Subcommittee, Georgia’s ex-Ambassador to the United States and former First Deputy Minister of Defence and Head of Foreign Intelligence, Batu Kutelia; Samuli Virtanen, Finland’s Secretary of State and Deputy Foreign Minister; and retired Danish General Knud Bartels, the former Chairman of the NATO Military Committee.

The panel, whose speakers were some of the most-lively personalities to offer up their opinions at the conference, bluntly addressed the West’s inadequate response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and NATO’s decision not to “punish Moscow with appropriate punitive measures at a time when Russia’s military capabilities to counter the West were light years behind their current abilities”. discussed bolstering the existing security framework under the umbrella of NATO and moving ahead with the creation of the Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO, the “Military Schengen” designed to aid with the free movement of military units and assets throughout Europe.

Ambassador Kutelia and General Bartels stressed that Europe and NATO need to take concerted active measures towards developing a strategy that will prepare the Alliance for the new front line against Russian aggression – which is more likely to be thematic and global in its scope in the coming years. To drive home the message that standing pat in the face of increased threats from Russia was not a recipe for guaranteeing Europe’s security, Kutelia said: “freedom and democracy need to be on the offensive.”

Amid concerns over Trump’s protectionist impulses and worries over the economic fallout from Brexit, WTO and International Trade Practice Head Vasilis Akritidis chaired a panel discussion with Andrea Giuricin, the CEO of TRA Consulting; Icelandic Justice Minister Sigridur Andersen; British MEP Amjad Bashir; and the Global VP of AT&T’s public affairs, Billy Linvill that addressed encouraging open markets and free trade as the ultimate tool for Europe’s economic integration, while also discussing the types of measures the EU needs to employ to project Europe’s power and appeal as a global economic player.

ACRE’s 2018 summit closed with a farewell address by the Alliance’s President Zahradil, which was preceded by a lively panel discussion on rebuilding trust in the media and how to safeguard society from the corrosive effects of disinformation campaigns.

Moderated by New Europe CEO and Editor, Alexandros Koronakis, the participants – which included William Horsley, a veteran BBC correspondent and Director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media and Media Freedom Representative for the Association of European Journalists; VoxEurop Executive Editor, Gian Paolo Accardo; UK Journalist Jennifer Baker, an expert on European tech policy; and Mikko Salo, a Finnish Member of the EU High-Level Expert Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation – discussed the challenges facing the media and society in the era of disinformation and ‘fake news’.

The panel concluded that an over-reliance on behavioural advertising by social media platforms are elements of the corporate media have made the public susceptible to blatant disinformation campaigns that often labelled as ‘fake news’. Society and the media have to engage one another to help educate the general populace, while also finding technological tools and promoting plurality in the media to help thwart the spread of dubious news stories or outright propaganda campaigns that certain governments – particularly Russia – use to foment chaos in open societies.

The panel ultimately concluded that the greatest weapon that a free society has against disinformation is the ability to help educate the public on how best to identify and flag fake or misleading news reports before they become part of the public discourse.